Film Review: The Housemaid

Remake of much-admired 1960 drama about a maid who becomes her wealthy employer’s toy and the dark consequences that ensue has some Chabrol and Hitchcock stamped all over it but not much underneath.

Maids making trouble (not just beds) has been the subject of so many films, as the polarity of servants and their masters is potent fodder for showy explorations of gender and class wars. (Genet’s The Maids, Losey’s The Servant, France’s very creepy, fact-based Murderous Maids, Chabrol’s harsh The Ceremony and Sebastian Silva’s more benign and recent art-house gem The Maid come to mind.)

Korean filmmaker Im Sang-soo, with The Housemaid, a selection at festivals like Cannes and Toronto, has certainly done his research, including some pinching of an occasional Hitchcock suspense technique, but doesn’t advance this sub-genre in any way or uncover anything more than familiar naughty behavior. Audiences, however, might get a charge out of the relatively exotic modern Korean settings, including the vast sets that serve as the family’s designer-driven mansion, some decent acting, some de rigueur sex scenes, and visual stretches beyond the ordinary like striking overhead shots.

The plot, derived from a 1960 film by Kim Ki-young, comes close to boilerplate: Young and disadvantaged Eun-yi (Jeon Do-young), who has been sharing a shabby room with a friend, accepts a job in the lavish home of very rich businessman and wine connoisseur Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), where she is to care for the needs of his pregnant wife Hae-ra (Seo Woo) and their adorable little girl. And, not surprisingly, beyond his love of wine and playing Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata on his piano, Hoon has his own needs that demand attention.

At first, Byung-sik (Young Yuh-Jung), the seasoned housemaid in charge, is a good mentor to the new maid. But she grows bitter and vindictive when she discovers that Hoon, who has all too easily lured Eun-yi into being his sexual slave, is carrying on with her new protégée.
Nothing so subtle as jealousy or envy takes hold. Instead, Byung-sik, marked by both a misplaced dignity and seasoned cynicism contracted from her spoiled, selfish employees, shares news of this homegrown infidelity with the wife’s domineering mother Hae-ra (Park Ji-young).

The mother, of course, tells her daughter and all hell breaks loose. There’s the pregnancy, the awful fall from a chandelier that sends someone to the hospital, a house invasion, a hanging and an inscrutable little outdoor birthday celebration in winter that makes no sense.

In spite of its fanciful efforts to go astray and some commendable performances, this Housemaid, while never boring, doesn’t bring much more than the family dinner to the proverbial table.