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The Housemaid -- Film Review

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CANNES -- Kim Ki-young's "The Housemaid," about a domestic helper's revenge after her affair with the master goes sour, is a gem of Korean cinema. Im Sang-soo's version, far from being a masterpiece, is not even subtle. Yet, he deserves credit for his gutsy departure from the original, rather than doing a carbon copy "remake" a la Gus Van Sant's "Psycho." The outcome is a flamingly sexy soap opera whose satire on high society is sometimes as savage as Claude Chabrol's "La ceremonie."

Presold by Mirovision to French distributor Pretty Pictures in March, the film could have a crack at both art house and genre markets in Europe as well as limited runs in the U.S.

Admittedly, the film has serious flaws, notably the abrupt and awkward character transition of the lead role, plot developments are glaringly melodramatic, exploding in an ending that not only defies script logic but is sure to incense pro-Kim purists. But the three female leads' high voltage chemistry, the sumptuous mis en scene (the biggest set in Korean film history), stylish symmetric compositions and lilting (perhaps Wong Kar-wai influenced) string score offers such sensory pleasure while pacing is so smooth that two hours seem to glide by imperceptibly.

When Euny (Jeon Do-yeon) is hired as a nanny and housemaid by a wealthy household, she is treated with perfunctory courtesy by the pregnant mistress Hera (Seo Woo), the cultivated master Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) and the fastidious housekeeper Choi Byung-shik (Youn Yuh-jung). But after succumbing to Hoon's brazen seduction, she gets pregnant. Hera and her mother conspire to remove this marital threat at all costs.

 

In the 1960 original, the family has toiled for years to fulfill their bourgeois dream, and half the drama is driven by the socially marginal housemaid's vengeful destruction of that dream. Im's class dynamic is more extreme, dwelling on the decadent rich's oppression of Euny, and highlighting the futility of her defiance. The most sardonic moment occurs when young miss Nami casually tells Euny that her dad taught her to be polite to people as a strategy to get one's selfish way.

In Kim Ki-young's gothic rendition of unchecked female sexuality as a destructive force, the male protagonist is seen fending off young working women. Im, whose previous works used sex to draw attention to women's exploitation and repression in Korean society, humanizes Euny by making Hoon the seducer. Despite the tastefully erotic way in which the sex scenes are shot, Hoon's chauvinism is apparent in the imperious tone of his language and sexual demands.

However even with Jeon's calibrated performance, Euny's characterization is problematic. Her innocence is supposed to set her employers calculation in bold relief, but the absence in motivation of her behavior does not really convince. Seo makes a stunning presence with her brittle beauty, which renders her role's scheming nature all the more chilling. It is Youn, star a 1970 film by Kim, who dominates in the most complex role, providing suspense and a moral compass via her struggles with her conscience and shifting allegiances.

The film abounds with references to the original's famous cinematic tropes -- the staircase, the piano, the windows, but without the same impact as social and psychological signifiers. Instead, Im expresses danger and discord through an alternative mis en scene with ravishing color contrasts (stark black and white playing against Wedgewood blue and gray) and palatial interiors whose harmony is deliberately disrupted by murals of severe lines or cubic shapes

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Competition
Sales: Mirovision Inc.
Production companies: Pretty Pictures, Sidus FnH, Mirovision Inc.
Cast: Jeon Do-yeon, Youn Yuh-jung, Lee Jung-jae, Seo Woo
Director-screenwriter: Im Sang-soo
Produced by: Jason Chae
Executive producers: Choi Pyung Ho, Seo Bum-seok
Director of photography: Lee Hyung Deok
Production designer: Han Ah Reum
Music: Kim Hong Jip
Costume designer: Choi Se Yeon
Editor: Lee Eun Soo
No rating, 120 minutes