Actress Lee Eun-shim
THE HOUSEMAID (Hanyo) B
South Korea (109 mi) 1960 d: Kim Ki-young restored print (111 mi)
While Kim Ki-Young is lauded by South Korean cinephiles, particularly his influence on young directors Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk, Bong Joon-ho, and Im Sang-soo who remade this film in 2010 offering a modern context, his reputation has only risen since his unfortunate death in a house fire with his wife in 1998, where his works cannot be categorized, as he as an eccentric whose unconventional nature placed him outside mainstream cinema. It was not unusual for Kim to leave home for months on end, lock himself into a cheap hotel and write a screenplay, as he lived near a red-light district, a neighborhood that influenced many of his early films, with a pre-occupation with sex, horror, and melodrama, becoming fascinated by exploiting the B-movie genre, where he was nicknamed “Mr. Monster.” Yet he began his career studying to become a dentist, shifting his interest to theater, founding the National University Theater in 1949, staging multiple Western-oriented plays, from Shakespeare to Chekhov to Eugene O’Neill, where his lead actress became his wife. The director supported himself by working for the U.S. State Department making about 20 training and propaganda documentaries during the Korean War, often writing his own screenplays. Unlike most struggling film directors, Kim could rely upon his wife’s income from her dental practice to finance his films, offering him a unique economic independence, where he used the American film equipment to make his first films on the cheap, where only one of his pre-1960 films is known to have survived, yet he was the first Korean filmmaker to employ synchronous sound, rarely worked with an assistant director, while also taking charge of the posters, theme music, and art on his own. The director is famous for not shooting a single scene without a storyboard, designing the set himself, choosing the necessary small props, while editing the film as well. THE HOUSEMAID, based upon an original script and Kim’s own independent production company, was his breakthrough film, shot by cinematographer Kim Deok-jin, bathing the screen in Expressionist black and white contrasts, veering into Gothic horror, but it was largely forgotten for several decades until a career retrospective at the 1997 Pusan International Film Festival resurrected his status, now considered one of the three or four most significant Korean films of all time, described by Darcy Paquet from the Korean Film Page website (A Short History of Korean Film) as Korea’s most shockingly original director and a consensus pick as one of the top three Korean films of all time (The Housemaid), while at the same time it was a huge box-office success, with Bong Joon-ho, director of the crowd-favorite and Oscar-winning Parasite (Gisaengchung) (2019) listing the film among his ten greatest films of all time, Bong Joon-ho | BFI, going so far as to claim it is the Korean CITIZEN KANE (1941), though according to The Yu Hyun-mok Page, Yu Hyun-mok’s AIMLESS BULLET (Obaltan) (1961) has repeatedly been voted the best Korean film of all time in local Korean critics’ polls. Inspired by an actual event the director read about in the newspapers, the film is a grotesque psychological horror/thriller with sadistic leanings (arguably the root of the torture porn cinema so prevalent in South Korean films today), featuring a neverending series of cruel, seemingly self-inflicted punishments, where the story revolves around a mild mannered, middle class family who unsuspectingly hires a deranged housemaid with a fatal attraction for the husband, wreaking havoc with some rat poison, featuring highly exaggerated, at times jazzy music to accentuate the delirious, over-the-top action, nearly all of which takes place in the compressed claustrophobic confinement of the family home, which may as well be a prison, as there is literally no escape.
By now, this film has found its place as an international phenomenon, made by a cult B-movie film director, thought of in some circles as a master for his accent on hysteria and delirium, a metaphor for the rapidly changing urban industrialization, with the accompanying collapse of traditional values. For some, Kim Ki-Young’s writing may recall flashes of Ed Wood in how simple-minded and totally implausible this story is, just how far removed from reality. But then, perhaps that’s the point. The walls of this home have a life of their own, resembling a spider web, where they’re caught like insects in the web of a venomous spider, snatching them in its lair, continually feeding on their weakness, where the husband has to be considered among the most spineless and cowardly male protagonists of all-time. Sometimes the hyper-exaggerated techniques get the most laughs and are what provide the most memorable entertainment, yet the distinctive sense of self-delusion is paramount in this film, accentuated even more by Roman Polanski in REPULSION (1965), where simple remedies remain unattainable and out of reach, leaving characters engulfed in their own inept feeble-mindedness, straight-jacketed by a conservative societal morality which frightens them to death, unwilling to face the wrath of public condemnation, so the gloomy, masochistic infliction of an anguishing powerlessness only looms larger as the punishment continues. Like something out of a horror chamber drama, one must give high marks for sustained tension and humor in this otherwise low-grade look, particularly coming at such an early point in Korean film history. As the most successful movie in his career, the film was reworked by Kim himself on no less than four other occasions, including WOMAN OF FIRE (1971) and THE INSECT WOMAN (1972), then HWANYEO ’82 (1982) and BEASTS OF PREY (1985), spanning the decades from the 60’s to the 80’s, each responding to the social conditions of their day, largely returning for financial considerations. The parallels to Bong’s Parasite (Gisaengchung) are compelling, as the film accentuates the battle of class divisions by staging the action on two separate floors joined by a stairway, moving into a 2-story house that represents a sign of their upward mobility, desperate to achieve middle class status, driven to expand upon the cramped quarters of only one floor. The husband Kim (Kim Jin-kyu) is a musical instructor both at work, encouraging singing as a boost for the morale at a factory housing displaced women in dormitories (in an era before mass industrialization where opportunities were few), and at home, living in a modern home they are struggling to pay for, drawing the flirtatious attention of two girlfriends who are taken by his bourgeois-looking Western style, with one openly confessing her love, which leads to her quickly getting expelled, opening the door for the other student who is more tactful, Cho (Um Aing-ran), taking lessons at his home, enjoying the attention she attracts. Cho even provides the housemaid at her teacher’s request, Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim), an isolated, chain-smoking, somewhat dimwitted girl she believes would offer her no competition in the beauty department, thinking she could still charm her way into the teacher’s heart. The wife is dreadfully overworked, Mrs. Kim (Ju Jeung-ryu), the only one wearing traditional Korean attire (all others are dressed in Western style), constantly seen draped across the desk with her sewing machine, always working to earn the extra money the family needs, with a disabled daughter who uses crutches to walk (one suspects polio based on the era) and her obnoxious little brother who teases her relentlessly. One of the more curious shots in the film is reserved for the two children playing a Cat’s Cradle game with a piece of string, each one changing the geometric configuration with their turn, becoming endlessly hypnotic as it plays out at length.
The repressive military regime of Park Chung-hee, initially installed in 1961 by a military coup d'état, then serving as the nation’s President until he was assassinated in 1979, triggered the Korean horror genre of the 60’s and 70’s, still reeling from Japanese colonial occupation, a civil war, and extreme postwar poverty, expressing fear about the demise of a patriarchal society due to Western capitalism, often expressed cinematically through sexual delusion, betrayal, and paranoid persecution. This changing power dynamic is a prominent theme expressed by the housemaid, initially coming from the lowest of the lower classes, an insignificant presence in a typical middle class family, asked to perform the household dirty work, yet when the male head of the household impregnates her (while simultaneously impregnating his own wife as well), this effectively changes the dynamic, becoming a melodrama of threatened masculinity, told entirely from the husband’s point of view, complete with misogynistic impulses, with the constantly frustrated father losing his authority, and the wife as well, particularly after she hatches a deadly serious plan that causes the housemaid to lose the baby, urging her to throw herself down the stairs, where she bleeds the family dry afterwards, vowing revenge. The selfish desires of the family turn the housemaid into a monster, behaving erratically and murderously, filled with contempt at what she was forced to do, literally hating the wife afterwards, hell-bent on punishing the family’s children to make amends. This demonic force within the home, a predecessor to Michael Haneke’s ultimate home invasion film, Funny Games (1997), sabotages traditional norms by subverting the status quo, transforming the housemaid into the family’s authority figure, maintaining a sado-masochistic love for the husband while hating his wife, the woman she vows to replace. Like Haneke’s film, the film takes great pleasure playing with flashbacks, treating the entire experience as a nightmare that “could” happen, with the father even speaking directly to the camera, turning it into a cautionary tale, like a “funny game.” This changing power dynamic is at the heart of Hollywood horror films as well, like Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), expressed through the love/hate relationship between Norman Bates and his mother, or the jealousy and violence between the two sisters in Robert Aldrich’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), providing nightmarish images of monstrous maternal figures who are denied a proper place in society, literally redrawing the boundary lines by accentuating a distorted or perverted response to mistreatment. Horror films have a way of righting the wrongs of society through heinous means, often resorting to flamboyant imagery summoned from deep within one’s sub-consciousness. The 1960’s Korean horror film uses the female body as a metaphor for the nation that suffers from repressive expectations, so if a woman does not obey traditional patriarchal norms, she is no longer viewed as morally “good” in this life or even the next, doomed even in death, where the vengeful spirit may come back to haunt the living, still attempting to correct a perceived injustice. Korean horror films can usually be viewed as social commentary, a nation under threat from foreign influence, with women sharing their anger and frustration at a hypocritical patriarchal society that makes all the rules, where the ultimate target is always a man, often returning as devious transformations that render men as helplessly powerless, assuming a phantom or ghostly presence to correct the social evils done to them.
At least initially the focus is upon Cho’s manipulative designs on Kim, cautiously hiding her real intentions, but returning regularly for lessons, with Kim often moving her hands into place or touching her shoulder as part of the instruction. While much is made of this, her presence disappears, thrown out of the house for getting too forward, replaced by the ominous presence of the housemaid, who has her own bedroom and outdoor balcony, allowing her to spy on Cho’s lessons, immediately asking for lessons herself. Ordered to stay away from the piano, the only way she gets attention is to hover near the piano, eventually playing erratically, making noises in the middle of the night, all designed to attract the attention of the husband, luring him into bed while the wife and children are away, eventually becoming pregnant, which she announces triumphantly, willing to spill the beans at school, which could cost Kim his job, so she exerts more and more pressure to get what she wants, making outrageous demands, acting in the most heinous manner, where you’d think they’d immediately throw her out, but she never goes away, no matter how abhorrent she behaves, scaring the children half to death, threatening to poison them with rat poison. On her first day, the kitchen is such a mess she actually captures a rat barehanded in the pantry, but rather than kill it and throw it in the garbage, the family instructs her to put rat poison on a plate of rice and leave it on the floor, which leads Mrs. Kim to have nightmares afterwards about rats, while the kids are too scared to eat anything prepared by the housemaid. That vermin rat is associated with the housemaid for the duration of the film, where this overriding sense of menacing fear envelops the house, with the housemaid actually calling the shots, subverting the power structure, leaving the husband utterly impotent, telling Kim and his wife what to do, making them follow her instructions, always threatening to publicly expose the real father of her baby. The film only grows more and more hysterical, veering on madness, as the family dynamic completely crumbles, remaining at the beck and call of a madwoman, seemingly helpless to do anything about it. Each time someone gets the nerve to devise a plan, it quickly backfires in their face, forcing them to squirm in even greater humiliation. What’s particularly effective is the loathsomeness of the housemaid, seemingly without any redeeming qualities, thoroughly selfish and conniving, bordering on evil. Like a poltergeist, this demon spirit will not be extricated, but literally haunts the house, leaving the family shivering in fear, all thoroughly ashamed of their exposed weakness. This ghostly spirit is the subject of an entire genre of Japanese horror films, such as the global success of Nakata Hideo’s RINGU (1998) and its legions of copycat successors, or tracing back to Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari) (1953), where in Buddhist and Shinto religious traditions there’s nothing worse than a vengeful spirit. Korean cinema simply picked up on that idea, adding sexual connotations, a family dynamic, and conservative moral traditions within Korean society, where these ghosts come to personify all the unfilled ambitions and sexual desires of women, turning men into mice, with society offscreen acting in the role of a Greek chorus laughing at them, producing scorn and ridicule on their hexed houses. This is the nightmarish territory of the film, eliminating all rationality and common sense, delving into a hallucinogenic rabbit hole of supposed moral decency gone wrong, extracting hideous consequences. While it may be too wildly off-the-wall for some, growing more and more ludicrous, actually becoming ridiculous, yet it is a dizzying choreography of absurd emotional extremes, generating fiendish and incomprehensible impulses, exaggerated beyond belief, mind-boggling in its visual design of unfiltered lunacy, leaving audiences overcome and overwhelmed by the sheer audacity of it all.