The Housemaid Has the Courage to Hate the Rich

01/19/2011 4:00 AM |

The Housemaid

Directed by Im Sang-soo

The Housemaid is spiffy, sexy and super-shallow, a far cry from its politically scathing original. In that 1960 film, directed by Kim Ki-young, bourgeois materialism got its comeuppance in the form of a mentally unstable and domestically destabilizing servant. Either there’s no longer any shame in middle-class morality (are they disappearing in Korea like in the U.S.?) or director Im Sang-soo just isn’t a radical: he updates the story by setting it among the inarguably odious super wealthy, ancien riche identifiable not just by their cavernous home but their taste for opera, red wine and gourmet food, whose ample leftovers bypass fridge for trash.

In Kim’s film, the central couple were punished by a pitiable monster they created but did not, perhaps, entirely deserve. Here, the morality is much simpler (and more cynical; expect the privileged to escape punishment): the rich bitch doesn’t do her own cooking, cleaning or child-rearing; she doesn’t even wash her own hair, and requires her underwear to be scrubbed by hand. Her husband, who seems to work 16 hours —a day, has a sense of entitlement that extends to the servants’ bodies. (The abortion the family later forces, then, feels at least ideologically consistent.) Pity their poor housemaid.

Renowned South Korean actress Jeon Do-yeon (Secret Sunshine) plays that title character, a happy-go-lucky gal when she begins her new job—see how nice she is with children!—who soon has her cheer fucked out of her doggie style. The boss gets her pregnant, and the ladies of the house conspire to come up with a solution. Maybe she should fall off a ladder? There’s a hint of James M. Cainfluence here, backed up by the Venetian-blinded light. But Im moves fleetly through assorted genres, finally landing in weepie melodrama. The Housemaid builds to a startling climax, with immolation imagery that vaguely lines up with that of protesting monks. Is it a hint of political consciousness? Or just an accident of empty spectacle? Spoiler alert: it’s the latter.

Opens January 21