Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid, released in 1960, stands as one of the most renowned films of Korean cinema. Kim’s film tells the story of a middle-class piano teacher as he plans a move into a new two-story house with his wife and two children. Naturally, being an attractive professorial type he is bombarded with sexual temptation from his students, but he is a man of integrity and does not stray. That is until his wife succumbs to exhaustion and requests a housemaid to keep up with the chores, get rid of the rats, and feed the family. Once the housemaid enters the film, the plot consists largely of her blackmailing the piano teacher and plotting rat poison moving conspicuously about the house.
With his remake, Im San-soo quite brilliantly changes the entire context of the film and switches protagonists. It would have been easy to go the reverential route and avoid straying too far from direct translation, but its unlikely a movie this good could have arisen from that approach. The hero in Im’s version is the housemaid, Euny (Jeon Do-yeon), a smart, spunky young girl who shares a tiny efficiency with her friend. In order to make some money and immediately improve her living arrangements, she begins works as a second live-in housemaid for a very rich family of three (with two on the way).
The film, despite its consistent sense of dread, quickly sets to work drawing intricate relationships between the characters. Hae Ra, the matriarch, accepts Euny with open arms, and Euny in turn is immediately taken with Nami, the family’s precocious young girl. The lead housemaid, Byeong-sik (Yoon Yeo-jeong), swigs her wine and plays her cards close, not revealing her allegiance until the last act. But the drama kicks off when Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), the patriarch, notices Euny’s feminine charms as she cleans his bath one day. So, after a night of apparently less than adequate lovemaking with his wife, he sneaks down to Euny’s room and demands satisfaction. Euny, for her part, is more than happy to give it, but the scene still reeks of high-class privilege and misogyny.
To be perfectly clear, this is not a white-knuckle thriller. The Housemaid is much more a drama about class and family with a serious psycho-sexual undercurrent and some awful behavior on most everybody’s part. Im never skimps on the tension, but neither does he provide the kind of gruesomely cathartic climax popular in contemporary horror. What the film does have is terrific performances all around, well constructed, morally ambiguous characters (beyond being a sexual predator, Hoon is not a terrible person), and gorgeous cinematography. The film deserves credit as well for ditching the offhand misogyny of the original and turning The Housemaid into a class critique with a complex female lead.