Im Sang-soo offers a second-take on a classic story.

Im Sang-soo Re-hires a Troubling 'Housemaid'

Adam Hartzell February 8, 2011

In the event you saw Kim Ki-young’s 1960’s South Korean classic The Housemaid either at last year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival or a couple weeks ago at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, this week you have the chance to see it again—for the first time. Im Sang-soo (The Good Lawyer’s Wife, The President’s Last Bang) has rehired the housemaid for South Korea in 2010, and now the results have been exported to our screens. But don’t call it a remake: This is a reworking of the original within a modern day South Korean context.

Im’s attentions in The Housemaid lie with the titular character rather than the original’s focus on the father of the family. We meet this Housemaid’s housemaid, Lee Eun-yi (played by Jeon Do-yeon, who won a Best Actress Award at Cannes for her role in Secret Sunshine), before she begins working for the household of Goh Hoon (played by Lee Jung-jae of Il-Mare, remade in the U.S. as The Lake House starring Keanu Reeves in Lee‘s role). Eun-yi initially works at a restaurant with her best friend. (She also lives with this friend, sleeping with her in the same bed quite intimately. It helps to put this in context for Western audiences that Eun-yi and her friend are likely not lesbians. They have what is called in South Korea and Japan a ‘skinship’ relationship, a friendship, mostly amongst females, that is expressed quite affectionately through constant cuddling and holding of hands.) After witnessing a suicide, Eun-yi propels herself into a job as a housemaid with a family whose every move is tactically designed to flout their social standing as far above, as the wife Hae-ra (played by Seo Woo) calls them, the “common people.” From Hae-ra’s intense yoga practice in spite of the huge girth of her twin-gestating pregnancy, to the philosophy books Hae-ra reads (Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex) and the English she later sings, to the huge house full of the latest in fashion, modern art and design, to the opera playing on the radio when the husband is not playing classical music on the piano, this is all meant to underscore this family‘s upper-class status. Hoon’s elaborate ritual sipping of (always) red wine throughout the film would intimidate any first-time Napa tourist. Eun-yi herself is transfixed by this family’s displays of their wealth, smitten by their stoic daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyun) and eventually inflamed with passion for the husband Hoon. All of this is witnessed by the watchful eye of the veteran housekeeper, Byeung-sik (played by veteran actress Yoon Yeo-jung), who herself is tied up in her own financial and political ways with this family’s powers.

Kim Ki-young’s film was partly an exploration of the rush to modernization of the South Korea of his time. As he acquired the modernized consumer goods (e.g., split-level house, piano, maid), the father in Kim’s film found himself innocently falling into the housemaid’s trap to destroy his family, a metaphor of the vulnerabilities exposed when modernizing so quickly. Im’s film flips the script to make a commentary on the South Korean class structure in which he presently lives. Even though Eun-yi is portrayed as somewhat slow to the take of Hoon’s tricks and naïve to where her compromising positions might lead, Eun-yi is not completely foolish. There’s a wonderful scene soon after her first tryst with Hoon where Eun-yi’s facial expression transitions from an obsequious smile for the wife Hae-ra that Eun-yi slowly drops as she closes the door and transforms her face into stern, serious concentration. This hints that Eun-yi knows what she’s doing, or at least what she has to do.

Besides the nods to Kim Ki-young’s original Housemaid through Im’s use of the piano and the positioning of stairs to highlight relationship developments, Im incorporates many full bows to Kim’s wider oeuvre. The sex scenes eventually lead to an intentionally comical and slightly outlandish conclusion, especially Hoon’s insistence of spreading out his arms while being fellated, as if he’s the model used for d Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. If you find yourself watching certain scenes of this Housemaid in the theater and thinking, “This is outrageous!,” know that it's likely homage. Watch the death-defying sex scene of Kim’s Iodo, or the sex on colorful candy drops on a glass table top in Insect Woman, a scene Kim recharged in Carnivore, and you will see how what seems a bit over-the-top in Im’s film is spot-on allusion to all of Kim's.

Jeon Do yeon, as always, is excellent as Eun-yi, showing subtle lifts and drops of emotion. Yet in spite of Jeon’s star-status, the true scene-stealer in this version of The Housemaid is veteran actress Yoon Yeo-jung, an actress who starred in a few of Kim Ki-young’s films, such as the aforementioned Insect Woman and one of Kim’s own retakes The Housemaid, his first entitled Woman of Fire. (Kim released two films with the Korean title Hwa-nyeo, meaning “Fire Woman” or “Woman of Fire.”) Yoon rolling her eyes at the comical dirty talk she overhears between Hoon and Eun-yi, or her drunken rebellion against her subservient role and the expectations of filmgoers as a sexagenarian flailing around in her bra, are some of the most delightful moments of Im‘s The Housemaid. I’m not the only one taken by her expert performance here. She won Best Supporting Actress at three different South Korean film awards, elevated to Best Actress at the Cinemanila International Film Festival.

If the 1960s were the Golden Age of South Korean cinema, Yoon’s captivating performance in the new Housemaid underscores a new cinematic trend in her country for the last couple of years, what we could label The Golden Girls Age of South Korean Cinema. San Franciscans who got a chance to see Kim Hye-ja‘s mesmerizing performance in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother are likely anxious to see another sexagenarian Yun Jeong-hee‘s masterful acting in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry if it ever gets a similar release here. Perhaps you were flipping through the channels on a flight to East Asia this autumn like me and came across sexagenarian Na Moon-hee alongside Lost’s Kim Yun-jin in the women’s prison melodrama Harmony, a film that finished in the top-ten South Korean box office this year. And Na didn‘t stop there in 2010, tri-teaming up with Kim Su-mi and Kim Hye-ok (both in their late ’50s) as Twilight Gangsters. Actresses in Hollywood who have been justifiably lamenting the lack of quality roles for mature women on stage and screen might want to start attending casting calls in South Korea.

Further telling of the South Korean film industry’s efforts to reach out to the elders in its audience, besides Im Sang-soo’s re-envisioning of The Housemaid, is the fact that Lee Man-hee’s 1966 film Late Autumn was redone by Kim Tae-yong in the same year. And we’re not done with the redone. The shooting of a new version of Shin Sang-ok’s 1964 Red Muffler begins this year. As a country with one of the fastest-aging countries thanks in part to a birth rate lower than Japan’s and a good standard of living that includes quality medical care for its elderly, (further enhanced by South Korea’s recent implementation of long-term care insurance as part of its national health insurance), such a choice to revisit South Korean classics makes economic and cultural sense. When speaking of the success of South Korean blockbusters in her book The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Filmmakers, Global Provocateurs, Jinhee Choi notes how referencing Korean historical events in blockbusters allows for familiarity for audiences over 40 years old. "In a country where theater admissions comprise three quarters of total revenus (in Hollywood, box-office income accounts for only one fourth), it is imperative for Korean producers to cater their products to a multigenerational audience.” South Korea is finding that part of its cinematic future lies in its past.