I love to find a movie no one knows about. It is always so awesome. You feel superior to other cinephiles. Ha. I saw The Housemaid, an obscure yet totally awesome film from mid-sixties Korea, what have you done today? Watched Inside Llewyn Davis like every other cinephile… pee shaw
The Housemaid is an emotional melodrama about a South Korean music teacher caught up in an affair. After acquiring a two-story house for his wife who wants the middle class life style, he hires a housemaid to help her with the housework. Although he seems to love his wife, he cannot resist the opening arms of this scheming lower class woman. This one night of lonely passion results in an unwanted pregnancy and a turn in the family dynamic. The music teacher and his wife are now treated as prisoners in their own home. The housemaid dictates what is to be done in order to avoid a scandal. It all comes to a head in the most devilishly melodramatic way possible.
This movie is quite amazing in the way it grabs you and leaves you hanging, hoping at each turning point that the music teacher will some how escape his inevitable fate. But the housemaid has her own intentions. She wants what the wife wants. She wants to have a middle class existence that includes a handsome husband and a beautiful child. Due to her status, she will never have what the wife has and therefore must steal it from the person she most envies. Bedding the husband is more about conquest and less about genuine passion. The woman who plays the housemaid, Lee Eun-Shim, transforms herself so completely into this grotesque monster, it is amazing to know that she never worked again on film. Even from the beginning you can see the devilish nature behind her weird cigarette smoking technique (She takes a hold of the cigarette at the end near the cherry instead of near the filter. It gives her away as a novice smoker.) and the way she handles a rat that is menacing the house but the development of this nature is truly scary.
This movie says more about the society in which the film was made than the characters themselves. South Korea was in a transition time during the time of the production. Having barely survived a prolonged war status thanks to the separation of the country into two halves, South Korea was just barely escaping uncontrollable debt because of the United States’ influence. But with the patronage of the United States comes the problems of capitalism. The United State’s citizens need to always be seen as middle class or upper class despite their actual lot in life is easily transferable to an impressionable South Korea. This is what the music teacher and his wife get caught in. His wife must take in sewing and he must provide private lessons to the women that he teaches in order to afford a two-story house they so desperately want. This bull-headed want propels the rest of the action and gives the music teacher a sense of desperation that is felt throughout the rest of the film. The couple is scared that if the affair is found out he will lose his job and they will be dropped back down to the lower class slums. One indication that they are middle class is that their house is two stories. The director chooses to place a good portion of the drama on the stairs as a way of showing the intended audience that shallow status symbols are not worth it.
This movie can be adored on many different levels. As pure melodrama, as social and political commentary, as a horror movie or as just a movie that influenced your favorite South Korean director, each way to watch the film offers plenty of rewards.