Recognized as one of the classics of South Korean cinema, Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960) is finally making its long-awaited video release on two formats: a DVD from the Korean Federation of Film Archives, and online courtesy of The Auteurs (where it is, as of now, free to stream). Its psycho-sexual tension suggests some fusion of Henri-Georges Clouzot and Shohei Imamura, though Kim’s meticulous mise-en-scene is far more claustrophobic, and his narrative goes far deeper into the recesses of his characters’ neuroses. As soon as the movie starts, with music instructor Dong-sik (Kim Jin-kyu) discussing a recent case of one man’s affair with his maid, it’s as though the main character’s private fears are projected outward, infesting his every gesture and every last inch of his home.
Life as Dong-sik knows it begins to fall apart when he hires the titular housemaid to assist his pregnant wife. While his wife and kids are away on vacation, he receives word that a former female pupil has killed herself over unrequited love for her music instructor. Dong-sik then finds himself in a compromising affair with the housemaid whom he has impregnated. Threatening to expose his infidelity, the housemaid holds the moral reputation of the family for ransom, awakening dormant murderous and sexual impulses of which everyone — even the children — are guilty.
Filming the story almost entirely in a cluttered, half-finished home, Kim Ki-young makes full use of narrow corridors and glass-paneled sliding doors to emphasize the sense of global paranoia that runs rampant throughout The Housemaid. Filming through chairs, banisters and windows, he turns the home into an inescapable prison of unrepressed passions. Once the skeletons come out of the closet with a vengeance in the film’s second half, it is as though the outside world ceases to exist. This pulp-chamber drama reminds of something that Gil Brewer might have penned for that publisher of lurid poetics Gold Medal. In fact, both Brewer’s 13 French Street (1951) and The Housemaid both share a common nightmare of corruption of the middle class home and the perversion of its moral system. What the male protagonists perceive as the threat of the femme fatale is actually the manifestation of their fantasies — murder and infidelity are but means of escape — and their ultimate horror is the realization of more than just their own complicity in their downfall, but that the devastation has widespread consequences. And though they were unable to admit it earlier, this is precisely what they wanted all along.
Though a box set of four of Kim’s other films are available as an import, almost the entirety of his work created throughout his forty-plus years as a director remains unavailable. That his most widely acclaimed film is now easily accessible in two formats is a bittersweet revelation, because now we know what we have been missing out on. Hopefully someone will pick up the trail and continue to release the rest of his body of work.
Also on DVD this week:
Big Iron Collection (VCI, Region 1) – Supposedly these six B-Westerns, all starring Jimmy “Shamrock” Ellison and Russell “Lucky” Hayden, were all shot within one month using practically the same cast and locations. That’s enough to sell me on them. Box includes Crooked River, Colorado Ranger, Fast On The Draw, Hostile Country, Marshal of Heldorado, and West Of The Brazos, all from 1950.
Gomorrah (2008) (101 Distribution, Region 1) – This kaleidoscopic portrait of life under mob rule in present-day Naples was much applauded (and occasionally derided) for its unromanticized, quotidian narrative. More impressive is director Matteo Garrone’s subtle but playful formal compositions, and his skilful balance of comedy and suspense that avoids the archetypes and pitfalls that have come to dominate mafia movies over the past several decades.