Lee Euny (Jeon Do-Yeon) is hired as a housemaid in an upper class family. Soon enough, master of the house Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae) will become her lover. The family’s world will begin to fall apart.
Melbourne International Film Festival: When Ki-young Kim’s The Housemaid debuted in 1960, it was at the height of what would come to be known as the 'Golden Era’ of South Korean cinema. With its bold and shocking take on sexual politics and class distinction, the film was and is recognised as being one of the nation’s most iconic and important films.
From a purely commercial standpoint, a remake seemed a no-brainer, given the stirrings of lustful trepidation the original incarnation of the housemaid, Myong ja, still inspires amongst South Korean cinephiles. But could flamboyant director Sang-soo Im’s 2010 revisioning, in which the regal Myong ja becomes the giggly nymphette Eun-yi, possibly be of enough importance to define the prevailing zeitgeist with the same impact as the 1960 version?
As played by the pretty and engaging Jeon Do-yeon, Eun-yi is as diametrically opposite to the spirit of Myong ja as one could imagine. Securing a job as housekeeper to a wealthy upper-class family, she immediately befriends the coolly distant only-child with whom she shares a room and ingratiates herself with the lady of the house (Seo Woo) who is carrying late-term twins. The husband, Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), is a haughty legal type who relaxes by playing the piano (a nod to the original, in which the man of the house was a recital pianist), drinking red wine and complaining that his enormously-pregnant wife can’t satisfy his selfish sexual needs.
Hoon notices Eun-yi as she energetically cleans the bath in a mini-skirt, unknowingly flashing him her pristine white panties (as we’ll come to understand, Sang-soo Im is not a director bound by any adherence to subtlety). A graphically-portrayed affair ensues, until the wife discovers the tryst and, with the aid of her cartoonishly villainous mother-in-law (Moon So-ri), sets out to destroy the sweet housemaid by mental and physical abuse.
The most telling misjudgement that Sang-soo Im makes is in the reimagining of his central character. Ki-young Kim’s original protagonist was coldly psychopathic and chillingly effective as a seductress, manipulator and social-status vigilante (it is believed Glenn Close drew on the character when creating her Oscar-nominated spurned-mistress Alex in Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, 1987); Eun-shim Lee was so vilely memorable as Myong ja, her career stalled when audiences refused to accept her in any other role. 2010’s Eun-yi is nothing more than a blotting pad for her master’s indifference, soaking up the abuse like a simpering puppy. In 1960, the housemaid meant something to everyone; in 2010, she means nothing. One of the great female lead characters of all time has been reduced to one of the most pandering; the film needed a strong heart, however dark, and in Eun-yi it barely registers a pulse.
So, no, Sang-soo Im’s film does not reflect any great social disconnect between the sexes and the classes as it exists today. It meanders about some elements of those issues – the cruel indifference of the ruling elite, as portrayed by the husband; the willingness of the upper class to maintain their social dominance via the most immoral means, as portrayed by the mother-in-law. Somewhat unfortunately, the film does reflect the artistic zeitgeist – the prevailing cinematic concern for style and mood over substance and insight – but the aesthetics of the film will only draw comments from fellow filmmakers and critics. There is no chance whatsoever that the soapy, seedy 2010 version will resonate with audiences at home or abroad in the same way that the 1960 film did.