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The Housemaid

Do-yeon Jeon in "The Housemaid"

The rich are different from you and me

The Housemaid

With the possible exception of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, the rich as a class has never been a source of sympathetic movie characters. And why should they be? The poor and middle class buy most of the tickets.

Things are clearly no different in South Korea, where the differences between the haves and have-nots fuel the elegantly perverse The Housemaid, a movie that varyingly recalls Luis Bunuel, Claude Chabrol, and Dynasty.

The title apparently refers to Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon), a young woman whose life seems to have gone off track. A college dropout and divorcee making ends meet working at a noodle shop, she accepts an offer of employment with a rich couple.

Although wife Haera (Seo Woo) is first seen exercising, it’s about the last time we see her exert herself. Having already presented one young daughter to her husband, she is now pregnant with twins, and while that might lead a mother-to-be to refrain from straining herself, it’s clear that taking it easy isn’t a new mode for Haera.

This extends to her, as they used to say, wifely obligations to her husband Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), leading to the expected middle act of the film. That he invents some after hours duties for his new maid isn’t terribly surprising. What is, is the equanimity with which she accepts. Can she really believe that this man, handsome and cultured but apparently lacking any emotional core, is falling in love with her?

Perhaps. Or perhaps her failure to think more than five minutes ahead accounts for her unsettled state of life to begin with. At any rate, this affair does not go unnoticed by Haera and her scheming mother (Park Ji-young), who are not about to see their carefully cultivated money pot tapped by the hired help. They enlist the aid of the estate’s head housekeeper Mrs. Cho (Yun Yeo-Jong) in their schemes. But are they taking her loyalty too much for granted?

That Mrs. Cho, whose shifting sympathies keep the plot purposely unbalanced, may be the real housemaid of the title is only one of the uncertainties that writer-director Im Sang-soo has built into his film. (It is officially a remake of a 1960 film that is considered seminal in the Korean film industry, but the plot has been so altered that anyone who may have seen the original probably wouldn’t even recognize it. Given that the original has never been released to home video in the US, I’m surprised how many film critics claim to have seen it.)

Im has said in interviews that he means his film to illustrate the gulf between the rich and poor, and Korean viewers may be able to fill in gaps that seemed oddly unexplained to this American. Neither Eun-yi nor Mrs. Cho’s pasts are adequately fleshed out given the details we do learn.

Where The Housemaid excels is in the way Im films his primary setting, a house so lavish that we seldom seem to see the same room twice. It stands in for the mindset of old money, of which Hoon is only the current steward: The family wealth is bigger than all of them, and, like this house, will live on after they have gone. At times the house seems to be indifferently watching its inhabitants, as if only momentarily cognizant of their presence.

The story is most unsettling in its bookends: an opening sequence on a busy Korean street that seems to have nothing specific to do with what follows, and a David Lynchian-ending (following a climax that has caused a lot of argument between viewers who like visual metaphors and those who prefer realistic films to stay that way).

Watch the trailer for The Housemaid

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