I’d never heard of The Housemaid before I chose it for Criterion Month. For some reason, i’s hard for me to believe that were Korean movies before the 2000s. Korean Cinema had such a boom with the rise of directors like Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, and Kim Jee-woon ( to name a few) that its overshadowed a lot of pre-21st Century Korean cinema. Yet if it wasn’t for films like The Housemaid, that 2000s boom may not have been possible. In fact, Bong Joon-ho even said The Housemaid was a big influence on Parasite.
1960 was a pivotal year for Korean cinema. Dictator Syngman Rhee had just fallen out of power due to the April Revolution. Though another authoritarian would come into power, General Park Chung-hee who would serve as President from 1963-1979 when he was assassinated, Korea did experience a brief period of freedom in the early 60s. Due to a lack of governmental control over cinema, director Kim Ki-young was able to make The Housemaid, a salacious thriller with seduction and murder. Even Hitchcock would blush at the scandalous nature of The Housemaid.
The Housemaid is about a composer named Dong-sik Kim (Kim Jin-ku) who one morning reads a story in the newspaper about a man falling in love with his maid. Must have been a slow news day. The film then jumps to the Composer working at a factory to support his two children and pregnant wife Mrs. Kim (Ju Jeung-ryu). Seeing his pregnant wife overworked from her sewing job, the Composer hires a housemaid (Lee Eun-shim) to help around the house. The Housemaid is eccentric, with a keen interest in collecting rats and spying on the Composer. She even attempts to seduce him… and succeeds. This is where the film gets fucked up.
The Housemaid gets pregnant by the Composer. She also tricks the Composer’s son into believe he’s ingested poison water which leads to his death falling down the stairs in a panic. Afraid of the entire family falling apart, Mrs. Kim lets the Composer and the Housemaid live upstairs together as she continues to labor over her sewing machine. Jesus Christ. This is pretty dark for 1960. The Housemaid eventually convinces the Composer to commit suicide with her by swallowing rat poison.
It seems like the movie should end at the suicide but there’s more. The film flashes back to the Composer reading the same story in the newspaper. So the whole film was like, him imagining himself and his family in the story. Then he looks to the screen and says this kind of thing could happen to anyone. I can’t quite pinpoint my feelings on this ending. On one hand, it lessens the deaths a bit. On the other hand, the whole fact this movie was some weird fantasy by the Composer is almost more disturbing. Either way there’s a lot to think about.
The film uses minimal locations and plays out like a slow burn thriller. Lee Eun-shim is intensely creepy as the Housemaid. She also nails the seduction scenes. In particular a set piece where she comes in drenched from the rain and tries to come on to the Composer. She’s very convincing. So much so that her performance ruined her career. Supposedly, no one wanted to work with an actor they believe to be a creepy home-wrecker. If true, that’s fucked up and totally unfair. How many times have you heard of an actor being cancelled for being too good?
The film has a little bit of a soap opera feel to it. I wouldn’t have minded some more dynamic camerawork or suspense set pieces. Regardless the performances and ideas are compelling. The film was remade in South Korea in 2010 but the original has remained the definitive version. Not just for its quality but for how many Korean filmmakers its has shaped in its wake.