The Housemaid 하녀 (2010) – S. Korea

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The Housemaid 하녀 (2010)

A young woman takes to her new responsibilities as an in-house nanny quickly, the first days earning her much praise and appreciation from the family and even the older maid.  The child daughter of the family takes kindly to her being close by, and all is rather pleasant. But, when her stay becomes an offensive one, her relationship with the husband a bit too close to the cuff, the wife and her mother sulk, needing to find a resolution, however dark. It’s a storyline much played upon, what with the butler figure in between familiar spouse conflicts, some expected K-Pop drama wrapped up in it all, but it’s a film that performs well in adapting newer strategies on genre bending to sharpen its performances and scenes, usually shocking with a great deal of awe. What a gorgeous picture show, one that will keep you in your chair, eyes fixed, no time to gaze away.There’s much sex too. So, yeah, don’t watch this with kids.

Darkness & Danger For The Sake of Spectacle?

Adapted from Ki-young Kim’s original screenplay and picture “Hanyo” (1960), Sang-soo Im directs a taut thriller that pulls you inward with its forced low to the ground perspectives, shallow depth of field, and a full spectrum of colors to make the conflict of a biting variety. One thinks of a Wes Anderson horror picture as the inspiration, its colors almost too bright, the coloring box of a 128 pack. Camera cranes are slow and of a deliberately supernatural style, leading you to anticipate much terror and surprise around the corner of each frame. You’ll not know what to expect, but that’s the pleasure of this film. Whether or not it comes, the shock, is not the point. It’s the feeling it gives you, the ramp up, the tight ball of adrenaline in your throat, that unfolds the film so well.

It opens up in a cold city scene, the snow close but not yet fallen, much bustling of noise around the streets, and many locals and tourists exploring the shops and restaurants, a typical night out it seems. Eun-yi Li, the nanny to be, played by Do-yeon Jeon, works as a fry cook with her roommate, and the two, all of a sudden, witness a suicide jump. The street peoples and Eun-yi rubber neck toward the fallen girl, more intrigued than concerned, and you can’t help but admit you’d have done the same. It’s terrible to think, but death and spectacle are a tight duo, a strange philosophical concoction that you’d rather not explore. There’s a magnetism to it, nuff said; let’s move on. But why bring us this scene? Perhaps as a warning. But is it for us or for the characters?

She is approached by the seemingly harsh Mrs. Cho, played by Yeo-jeong Yoon (A Good Lawyer’s Wife), an older, seasoned housemaid, looking for a helping hand, perhaps a replacement, as she seems objectively exhausted from keeping her work at a consistent high. The job: raising a young daughter, Nami, and two on-the-way twins for Mr. Hoon Goh, played by Jung-Jae Lee (New World) & Mrs. Hae-ra, played by Woo Seo (Paju), a wealthy couple living in a mansion someplace far off and away from those earlier street folks. Not saying much, at first, she takes to the job like a natural, her experience as a teacher proving of quality. She is affectious, like that of an Ellen Page kind, wiry and tomboyish, ultimately friendly, kind hearted. She likes her new role, but it’s not without it’s temptations.

Hoon Goh becomes tired of Hae-ra’s irritable tendencies in pregnancy, and, with seeing a new, young, slender maid at his home, especially after long days at work, wherever it is he is employed, Eun-yi’s long legs and infectious smile get the best of him. The two start a scandalous affair behind the home’s many doors, and their sweaty sex makes her character more complex and a difficult one to calculate. Soap opera aficionados are sure to enjoy the many drama expressions here to cut up and chew, it all rather silly but reasonably grounded. Mrs. Cho discovers Eun-yi is seeing Goh, and informs Hae-ra’s mother, played fiercely by Ji-Young Park, a wicked, icy cold, image of a woman. Not only is Eun-yi seeing Goh, she tells her, but she’s pregnant, another Goh baby on the way.

Hae-ra and her mother begin to plot, and Eun-yi’s life is in danger. She doesn’t know it, but Mrs. Cho feels guilty for spilling information. In a later scene she says she couldn’t help it, “It’s in my bones.” Cho’s seen this family for their darkness, her many years there long and draining. If there’s anyone to heed advice from, it’s her. She knows what they’re capable of, even if Eun-yi doesn’t. And, what makes it more difficult, Eun-yi and, Nami, the daughter, are genuinely close, each finding much joy in the other’s company. She would die to have a young daughter like her, and now is her chance. If only she can get away from that mansion and its people, maybe the shot is her’s.

Cold & Collected

Of the design, it has an identity all its own, using color and shadows to make scenes and sequences sharp then blunt, beautiful but also ugly. It’s difficult to express other than fetishism, but it knows of its cinephile fans, playing up the style of images more than its narrative asks, using the camera and corners to tell the story coolly rather than necessarily. It moves like a mixture of documentary over-the-shoulder and fly-on-the-wall shooting, but it’s even more stable, like a ghost gliding through the vents of each room.

Performances are well designed, the characters and the world developed and appropriately explored. You’re given enough to make assumptions of scenes, and that’s all that can be reasonable asked of films, that they bring life to the sets. It’s a lived-in grandiose mansion with a not so right family dwelling inside, and the roles are tailored for entertainment.

The points on direction are also clear. I found the staging and motion of action not too slow, but of a pleasant pace. The editing is meant to cause some surprise, but only until the end do you get what you’re likely expecting of South Korean drama, the speechlessness resulting from much wtf strangeness. The rest is neatly manipulative, causing an effective climb of your attention toward its sum of conflicts.

But, of the narrative, I found the most lacking, its giving us details, important ones, in too much exposure. It’s leading us to know more of the characters than our patience permits. I understand that trying to cut any bits of your work is difficult, but most of the time less is more. Of the length, it’s not much past an hour and a half, but, still, it’s needing some change. It is an enjoyable story, though it doesn’t conceal when it could.

I’m not sure of its ending, the result understandable, but not easily reasonable, them talking in English and Marilyn Monroe worshipping. When you see it, let me know. But it still, for the sake of design, performances, and direction, is a good film; I say see it. The darkened danger is of spectacle, but there’s more substance to pull off the bones here.