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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 4, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 09
Beautifully eerie Housemaid a gruesome spellbinder
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Beautifully eerie Housemaid a gruesome spellbinder

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

The Housemaid
Now Playing


Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn) is excited. The young woman has just gotten a job as a housemaid and nanny for an upper-crust family. Wealthy Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae) and his beautiful wife Hae-ra (Seo Woo) are expecting their second and third children - twins - any day. Byung-sik (Yun Yeo-Jong) is the older maid, the one who hides all of the family's secrets, and as she watches her new charge settle into her new life a growing uneasiness begins to engulf the weary woman.

Hoon sets his eye on Eun-yi. He has decided he will have her, and the woman's naïvete, as well as her fear of losing her well-paying position, allows her to succumb to his sexual charms. But Byung-sik sees all, and knows his housemaid is pregnant even before she does. A chain of events is set in motion where Eun-yi is battered, belittled, and betrayed, but not above getting a fiery revenge against Hoon and his wife.

I have never seen the 1960 original film that Korean director Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid is based upon. I do not know how they are similar, where they are different or how they choose to bring things to a conclusion. What I do know is that this new take on the tale had me tightly wrapped around its finger right from the start, and everything built to a startling and horrifying conclusion that had my mouth agape throughout.

The movie begins obviously enough. It's like your basic Merchant-Ivory morality tale of the upper-class taking advantage of those who serve them, treating them like chattel, and realizing they could get away with murder if they so desired. But as things progress, a reversal slowly begins to take place. Who really is the housemaid? Who is the servant? Who has control of their own destiny? And who, finally, will have the strength to say enough is enough and call out those in the wrong as the denizens of evil they are?

Eun-yi is so sweet, so innocent, it is only a matter of time before she is corrupted by Hoon. In many ways she is as much a child as the youngster she is befriending, Nami (Ahn Seo-Hyeon). She hides past tragedies and past obsessions with the macabre that no one knows about, but at her core she is pure of heart and delicate in spirit, looking at the future with eyes unclouded by hate or callousness.

Byung-sik is her elder opposite. Maybe she was like her charge once; maybe long ago she was just as innocent. But after serving Hoon and his family for so long (one gets the feeling she was his nanny working for his father in the position Eun-yi holds now), she has been beaten down and turned cynical. She knows all their secrets, revealing what she's learned when the opportunity seems most beneficial, knowing how terrible the consequences of doing so will be, but trying to find a way to live with them.

Sang-soo hypnotically moves things forward in a way that is both restrained and elegant. Everything plays itself out like a delicate deathly waltz, the Grim Reaper always lurking in the shadows, casting a pallid glow upon the proceedings and hinting at tragedies to come. But nothing could prepare me for what does transpire, and the final scenes have a grotesque opulence that is entrancing and disgusting all at once.

I could say more, but The Housemaid is one of those pictures the less you know going in, the more opportunity it has to devastate and surprise. The power of the climax comes from how unexpected (yet how horribly believable) it is, and to even hint at more would be doing the viewer a grave disservice. This Korean import is a shocking spectacle of inhumanity and desire, of how the worlds we construct to serve us can slowly and intractably become our prison, making it the first must-see motion picture of 2011.

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