'The Housemaid': Film Review

Courtesy of IFC Midnight
Stylish Gothic horror, Vietnamese-style.
2/16/2018

A young housemaid enters into an ill-fated affair with her employer in Derek Nguyen's horror film set in 1953 French Indochina.

Classic Gothic horror gets a Vietnamese spin in Derek Nguyen's debut feature, and this film's gorgeous exoticism marvelously enhances its spooky allure. Set in French Indochina in 1953, The Housemaid delivers a well-crafted combination of doomed romance and ghost story. Although not particularly original in its recycling of familiar genre tropes, the stylish film should well satisfy horror aficionados while engaging more general audiences as well. It certainly has in its native country, where it proved a major box-office hit.

Linh (Kate Nhung), the titular character, arrives exhausted and bleeding at the Sa Cat rubber plantation, having walked hundreds of miles to get there in search of work after her family members were killed. The estate's housekeeper (Kim Xuan) immediately hires Linh, as the plantation is desperately in need of employees because of its reputation of being haunted by the ghosts of previous workers who were killed by its brutal former owners. One of Linh's principal duties is to attend to Captain Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud), the estate's current owner who is still recovering from wounds suffered in an assassination attempt.

It doesn't take long before romantic sparks fly between the comely young housemaid and the dreamily handsome French officer. But there are several obstacles threatening their hidden relationship. One is Sebastien's fiancée, (Rosie Fellner), who arrives shortly thereafter and quickly realizes that she has competition and schemes to get Linh fired. The other, far more lethal problem is the ghost of Sebastian's first wife (Svitlana Kovalenko), who died years earlier along with their infant child and has haunted the environs ever since.

"You saw her, didn't you?" the estate's perceptive cook (Phi Phung) asks Linh at one point. And Linh indeed has, in one of the several hair-raising encounters demonstrating that the ghost's vengeful wrath knows no bounds. 

Working very effectively in both its steamy romance and subtle horror elements (there's little overt gore), the film benefits immeasurably from Sam Chase's evocative cinematography, Jose Marie Pamintuan's luxurious production design and Luxy Tran's handsome costumes that all vividly render the period tropical atmosphere. The performances are also terrific, from Nhung's innocent yet steely heroine to Richaud's dashing military officer to the supporting players who perform with the assurance of a vintage Hollywood stock company.

The film, bearing no small debt to Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, inevitably has a familiar feel. But director-screenwriter Nguyen infuses it with enough fresh elements to make it fully entertaining. Unlike so many mysterious horror tales, the revelatory twist at the pic's conclusion actually proves satisfyingly surprising rather than hokey. And the symbolic elements, such as the relationship between the Frenchman representing the colonizing force and the young Vietnamese woman he comes to physically dominate, are not handled in overly heavy-handed fashion. 

The sort of elegantly frightening, old-fashioned diversion that should prove equally enticing to male and female viewers, The Housemaid demonstrates that Vietnam could easily rival such countries as Japan and South Korea when it comes to Asian horror.

Production company: HK Film
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Cast: Nhung Kate, Jean-Michel Richaud, Rosie Fellner, Kim Xuan, Phi Phung, Kien An, Linh Son, Thach Kim Long, Lan Phuong
Director-screenwriter: Derek Nguyen
Producers: Timothy Linh Bui, Yuno Choi, Quynh Ha

Executive producer: Louie Nguyen
Director of photography: Sam Chase

Production designer: Jose Marie Pamintuan
Editor: Stephane Gauger

Composer: Jerome Leroy
Costume designer: Luxy Tran

104 minutes