Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The New Housemaid

Yes, the rich really are different from us. They are just plain evil. At least that is the inescapable implication of Im Sang-soo’s radical re-conception of Kim Ki-young’s 1960 edgy Korean masterpiece The Housemaid. Heavily steeped in sex and class consciousness, Im’s Housemaid (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

The wealthy Hoon can always make problems go away with discretely placed envelopes filled with cash. The Byung-sik has seen it happen time after time. The grand dame of the domestic staff has accomplished a rare feat of social elevation, supporting her son’s legal education up through his recent appointment as a public prosecutor. She has earned a measure of respect from the family, yet she still slaves for them while barely masking her contempt. Into this environment of simmering malevolence comes a veritable lamb, Eun-yi.

Initially, Eun-yi enjoys life as a servant in Hoon’s house. Though undeniably sensual, it is not entirely clear whether she is really all there. It is also debatable who first seduces whom, Eun-yi or Hoon. Regardless, she is quite pleased to fulfill her additional duties. However, when her pregnancy starts to show, Hoon’s cold wife Hae-ra and her cougarish mother Mi-hee have a big problem. Things will not be pretty from here on out.

Crafting a big, lurid sexual melodrama, Im turns the class dynamics of the Kim’s Housemaid on their head. In the original, the middle class family allowed their live-in servant to terrorize them with impunity, fearing the social and economic consequences which would result from any whiff of scandal. In contrast, Kim portrays the Hoon family as masters of the universe, reckless in their perversity and utter disregard for the rights of their employees. Yet, rather than a call to the barricades, Im’s Housemaid is a guilty pleasure filled with jaw-droppingly provocative twists and turns.

Already something of a legendary figure of Korean television and cinema, Youn Yuh-jung’s supporting turn as Byung-sik is exceptionally accomplished, providing the dark, resentful heart of the film. It is truly award caliber work. Film festival superstar (recently seen here in Secret Sunshine) Jeon Do-youn is also perfectly cast as the mostly innocent Eun-yi, keeping viewers effectively off-balance the entire film. Also quite notable is the ever alluring Park Ji-young, frankly outdoing any and all Lady MacBeths as Mother Mi-hee. Perhaps most surprising though, is the rather nuanced and intriguingly ambiguous work of Ahn Seo-Hyeon as Hoon’s young daughter Nami.

Tightly executed, Housemaid is a nasty, feverish thriller. It is also wickedly stylish thanks to the lush cinematography of Lee Hyung Deok and Lee Ha-joon’s lavish set design. Highly recommended, especially but certainly not limited to connoisseurs of Asian cinema, Im’s Housemaid opens this Friday (1/21) in New York at the IFC Center.