The ongoing renaissance in South Korean cinema is too stylistically diverse to constitute a movement, but its major filmmakers—Park Chanwook (Oldboy), Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine), Kim Ki-duk (3-Iron), Hong Sang-soo (Woman Is the Future of Man)—share a taste for complex narratives that challenge social taboos. The most brazen of the bunch may be Im Sang-soo, whose work is founded on his irreverence toward national sacred cows. With The President’s Last Bang (2005) he created a slick black comedy around the 1979 assassination of President Park Chung-hee; the president’s son, Park Ji-man, was so offended by the film that he sued for defamation, hoping to block its release. By presenting sensitive subject matter in unabashedly bold terms, Im pushes viewers to take a hard stand on issues most people would prefer to tiptoe around.
This is certainly true of Im’s latest feature, The Housemaid. The film is a remake of a 1960 thriller by Kim Ki-young that’s widely regarded as a gem of South Korean cinema. In the original film a middle-class teacher at a women’s college hires a beautiful student to serve as his children’s live-in nanny. After winning over his wife and children, the young woman seduces the teacher, begs him to ditch his wife, grows increasingly violent, and ultimately holds his children hostage. For the new version, however, Im has transplanted the basic premise to a filthy rich family and turned the young nanny into a poor woman with few opportunities for advancement. The filmmaker told the website 10 Asia that he wanted to remake the movie so he could highlight the disparity between South Korea’s rich and poor, which has grown substantially since 1960. In considering the young woman’s plight, Im asks whether anyone in poverty can cross that corrupt class divide without becoming corrupted herself.
The original version of The Housemaid more than holds up in terms of suspense, and it’s often astonishingly beautiful. (You can view the entire film at Mubi.com.) Like the Hollywood movies of Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind), it makes use of a rich mise-en-scene to expose the burgeoning middle class as deeply conflicted, and its performances are so animated they almost seem like part of the visual design. One can easily imagine why Im wanted to remake it: the movie’s jarring combination of garish melodrama and acute psychological detail anticipates his own work. Yet the film is dated by its facile depictions of women and its boorish presumptions of male entitlement. Only the husband’s suffering can be described as three-dimensional; the women are either psychopaths or obedient does.
The remake might have preserved the original movie’s time period and focused on its outdated sexism, but Im updates the story in order to critique our own era. His version of The Housemaid opens among the working poor of downtown Seoul, the romanticism of the original discarded in favor of a documentary-style landscape of the city after dark. Its streets are crowded with third-shift employees scurrying around at menial jobs, and they barely react when a suicidal woman suddenly jumps from a tall building to the pavement below. It’s a stark image of a human becoming little more than garbage on the street, and it foreshadows the story to come.
Shortly afterward Im introduces Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon), a college graduate in early education who now works as a cook and lives in a dingy apartment. One morning she’s visited by Mrs. Cho (Yun Yeo-jong), head servant of the wealthy Goh family, who’s come to interview her for the nanny job. (“You need to know how a person lives,” she says, surveying the tidy little apartment with the cool eye of a surveillance expert.) Hired on the spot, Eun-yi moves into the Gohs’ palatial home and immediately learns her place when the mother, Ha Rae (Woo Seo), orders her to hand-wash a pair of dirty panties. The elegantly dressed father, Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), might be a CEO or high-ranking government official, and the family is uniformly derisive toward its servants. Eun-yi seems to have entered not a household but a little kingdom.
From this point Im begins to introduce the operatic style for which he’s known, and this makes the wealthy household seem all but unbound from normal life. The father and the nanny first share a room alone when Eun-yi delivers breakfast to Hoon as he sits at the grand piano playing a Beethoven sonata. Im follows her into the room with a sensuous zoom that mirrors the Beethoven melody, then cuts to an even slower zoom on Hoon, suggesting her fascinated perspective. It’s a masterful moment, intertwining high art and materialism, desire and submission, in an economy of shots. This is the only real seduction in the film, and it’s tied to the plush decor.
Not long after Eun-yi joins the family, Hoon begins sleeping with her, but their encounters have less to do with sexual gratification than with the father exercising privilege on the most intimate level, just as the mother did when handing off the underwear. Ha Rae is pregnant with twins, and in one of the more interesting reversals of the original film, Im consistently associates power with motherhood rather than fatherhood. When Eun-yi becomes pregnant by Hoon, Ha Rae plots with her own malevolent mother to get rid of the illegitimate child. Eun-yi refuses to consider an abortion, so the other two women ensnare her in a series of increasingly ugly “accidents,” which Im stages with a combination of black comedy and stomach-churning suspense.
These plot developments might give the impression that Eun-yi is a victim, but The Housemaid succeeds as a social provocation mainly because Im complicates any easy interpretation of her. Docile at the beginning of the story, decadent in her affair with Hoon, stubborn in her refusal to abort their child, and ultimately wrathful in her response to the family, Eun-yi reacts to her dilemma with several contradictory stances, none of them satisfying for her. Jeon responds to the Brechtian challenge of her role by playing Eun-yi as a series of variations on the theme of the social climber, ranging from defenseless to overly assertive. As in the original version of The Housemaid, the title character winds up thoroughly deranged, but in this case her insanity results not from her being rejected by the society she wants to join but from her understanding it all too well.