[Note -- The Housemaid is currently available, legally, for free at MUBI.com. Only registration for a free account is needed. Big thanks to Sheila O'Malley of The Sheila Variations for pointing this out. As ever, I would encourage all to watch the film before reading the following review, as spoilers abound.]
It is a testament to the consummate brilliance and ineffable weirdness of South Korean cinema that a movie like The Housemaid may be the best summary of the nation's output. One could easily trace a line from its horrifically comic, immaculately executed genre exercises to the likes of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, and its socio-sexual critique plays as a satirical pre-response to the work of Hong Sang-soo. Made during a brief window of creative autonomy during economic and social unrest preceding a coup d'état in 1961, The Housemaid's social context is just as peculiar as its narrative and textual content.
Director Kim Ki-young lobs satirical mortars from the start, using a pre-credits scene of a man reading a story about a businessman who had an affair with his housemaid to establish a framing device the director will later tear down as viciously as he does everything in-between the bookends. What might seem like a fable on sexual propriety instantly dovetails into a class commentary, even in the framing device. Before the proper narrative begins, the husband reading the news story responds to his wife's shock and outrage that it's not such an unbelievable story, noting how reliant they themselves are on their own housemaid. "She's the first one I see when I come home," the man says of the servant, and the blend of sexual subtext (and, later, text) and social critique swirls gently.
The actual story concerns Mr. Kim (Kim Jin-kyu), a composer who works at a factory in the city giving music lessons to the female workers/students. Those young women themselves seem trapped in a Westernized mindset, taking music lessons not because they seem all that keen on learning music -- only one ever takes up Kim's offer for private piano lessons -- but because they want to look as if they enjoy music. These working-class ladies have bourgeois aspirations, and who looks more bourgeois than the well-dressed, handsome piano teacher? Their fawning over him thus takes on a double meaning, though it's a dichotomy that has always existed between wealth and perceived beauty. (Remember that "well-fed" used to be attractive because it signified one could afford food, while today thin is in because only the rich have the resources and spare time to get fresh, unprocessed produce and a personal trainer.)
Not that Mr. Kim is as dapper and well-off as he might seem. Back home, he's preparing for a move into a two-story house that looks impressive only compared to his current domicile. Even then, the difference could mostly be attributed to the fact that the family has already torn down everything for the move. Kim talks about his secondary job as a tutor, while his pregnant wife toils away at her sewing machine to make some extra money -- before the pregnancy, this was her second job. Both parents clearly spend most of their time at work in order to get the cash to buy material luxuries, and it is immediately evident that their absence has taken its toll on their children, be it the crippled, withdrawn daughter or the utterly intolerable brat of a son who cruelly mocks his sister and makes selfish, forthright demands of people every second he's on the screen.
Slyly, however, the director takes the time to demonstrate how deeply the married couple love each other, even if the outlets of that affection lead them astray. Whenever the wife suffers a pain or cramp, Mr. Kim drops everything to carry her to bed and massage whatever part of her that aches. She tells him he can stop after awhile, aware that he himself must be sore from rubbing. "It's nothing compared to what women go through," Kim says, and you can't help but love the guy. Whatever temptation is about to come, clearly the root of the problem is not a rocky marriage.
Yet it is precisely their love for each other than drives Mr. Kim and his wife to constantly pursue ever greater material comfort. Having been independent for less a century and under massive Western influence for even less time, Korea as shown by Kim Ki-young is already so Westernized that one can hardly imagine how new the concept of a middle class is. South Korea's economic explosion was still on the horizon, not set to start for a few years after The Housemaid's premiere. The Kim household, however, is infused with Western luxuriance, from busts of European composers to a piano parlor. The bourgeois affectation reaches its zenith when the family, with the aid of the wife's incessant sewing, brings home a television set. The TV signals that the Kims are the richest family in the neighborhood; only then do the parents reference their next project, helping their daughter get well and get those braces off her legs (a mix-up of priorities if ever one existed).
It is the wife, in fact, who brings the young housemaid into the home when she demands her husband find a helper to spare her housework during the pregnancy, with the unspoken suggestion that the maid will stay on when the wife recovers and returns to full-time work, a suggestion supported by the shabby upkeep of the old home. Mr. Kim's pupil, Miss Cho, brings a slow-witted but hard-working friend (Lee Eun-shim) with her to one of her lessons, and the young woman proves her mettle at once by creepily capturing a rat scurrying around the kitchen with her bare hands, holding up the corpse with the sort of smile that should have raised a few neck hairs, much less red flags.
The housemaid's entrance changes the dynamic of the film, turning what had been a stone-faced satire into something approaching the id to Japanese master and social observer Ozu Yasuijro's meditative superego. The director's camera moves in graceful tracks, mostly in straight lines along the x- and z-axes of three-dimensional space. Yet Kim also has a tendency to pivot his camera during its tracks, peering around corners and glancing up and down the stairwell. It is a subtle effect, but one that begins to add meaning and tone to shots that otherwise might have carried a simple dramatic presence.
If nothing else, and The Housemaid is so very many things, the film is a masterpiece of claustrophobia, using the upper-middle-class abode the Kim family likes to think of as its palace as a constrictive cage, a bourgeois self-imprisonment that hosts unspeakable horrors. The most memorable of recurring shots is a horizontal track back-and-forth from the bedroom where the maid sleeps and the parlor where Mr. Kim keeps his piano, effectively moving between servants' quarters and the most bourgeois room in the house. But even with the camera outside the house in these shots, the lateral movement is cramped. Inside the house, the dimensions slowly shrink as if the drying wallpaper on the new house shriveled up the walls with it. What makes this alteration so strange is that one gets the impression the director made the house feel artificially large when we first saw it before revealing its true dimensions, instead of shrinking the true image.
The house seems especially small once the housemaid reveals the extent of her madness. Her edge is amusingly communicated first through the dated tut-tutting of her smoking habit, something Kim himself likely found silly considering how openly he mocks the PSA-moralism of those criticizing her habit. But her behavior soon grows far beyond an exaggerated jonesing when she spies Miss Cho confessing her love for Mr. Kim in the wake of the suicide of Cho's lovesick friend. Kim manages to throw out Cho -- though not without telling her to keep coming back for the lessons because he needs the money -- and the maid steps in to engage in her own blackmail. Either the husband sleeps with her, or she'll go to the police and accuse him of rape and of threatening Miss Cho. Once the young woman discovers she's pregnant with Mr. Kim's baby, she unleashes a reign of terror upon the mildly loathsome family, who are so corrupt that the audience can root for no one, merely sitting back in mounting tension.
Lee Eun-shim gives one of the most terrifying performances ever put to celluloid. Her housemaid is a mysterious, abominable virago, not so much seducing the husband as brutally forcing his hand before the cards are even dealt. Lee has a round face, but when she contorts in inexplicable rage, her face tapers, sharpening from the wide top half (as if her skull must always make room for her saucer-like eyes) to a suddenly rigid jawline. Thus, she takes on a vaguely amorphous makeup, a spectral whirlwind all the more unknowable for the fact that Lee apparently never appeared in another film (coming across information on her is all but impossible). Perhaps seeking to distinguish between the working class he left behind (and the one the maid represents) and his new bourgeois aspirations, the patriarch forbids his servant from touching the piano, but she regularly does so anyway, her childish, random pounding of keys serving as diegetic tension to complement the bending, squawking reeds of the soundtrack. She has the ability to simply appear, and her ostensible dim-witted nature gives way to a cunning that always outguesses the family. Lee makes both the simple and the insolubly complex aspects of her character equally real, and equally troublesome.
The housemaid lures the family into her trap by playing the tearful victim of the husband's advances, winning the wife's sympathy but also an open suggestion that she "take care" of the lovechild. Following the haphazard abortion, the maid uses the emotional turmoil she claims to feel over losing her baby to prey upon both the family's traditional values and their precarious perch on the social ladder. Having only just reached the next plateau, the Kims intensely fear the loss of social station that would come from the maid going to the police; even if they are later absolved, the scrutiny and whispers such an embarrassment would bring would topple them. So, the maid has her way with the Kims, and her suicidal eroticism with Mr. Kim obliterates the Freudian split between the Eros and Thanatos in a way that would make Hitchcock proud.
That sort of anti-Freudian Freudianism is but one of several ways the director recalls the Master of Suspense. Kim loves his blatant yet multifaceted visual symbols and motifs, from a horrible shot of rats in death throes after ingesting poison to recurring shots of the poison itself in a series of dread-inducing teases. I've become unable to view stairwells in middle-class homes as anything but an ominous sign (thanks, Nicholas Ray), and sure enough, Kim uses the stairwell as the setting for some of his cruelest and most shocking shots. Even the pet squirrel the father buys for his daughter to show how animals continue to run and exercise despite limitations takes on a third meaning beyond the symbol he intends it: "People thought caged life would immobilize them," the father says, but the squirrel's mad, frantic dash around its cramped "home" becomes less an inspiration than a cold reflection of how stir-crazy and restless the family becomes when they grotesquely get their wish to have everything they need for survival and comfort in their house before being trapped inside it. The director's swooping, disorienting tracks and zooms display a mastery of form with only eight previous feature credits to Kim Ki-young's name, and a shot that frames the ominous stairwell through the equally foreboding glass of water (an object that always carries the threat of containing poison), is as Hitchcockian a shot as has ever existed.
Kim's scathing reproach to the bourgeoisie culminates in an absurdist cruelty that aligns him with Luis Buñuel, whose own contemporaneous output was beginning to bend his surrealist attacks into more honed but still offbeat commentaries. Take the Kims' son, that abhorrent boy who inspires nothing but the utmost hatred in the audience; he is, without a doubt, one of the most unpleasant children I've ever seen in a film. He's disrespectful, mean and arrogant, but when the director offs him, I felt a surge of revulsion and nausea I can't quite place. Perhaps it is the very lack of childlike appeal that makes his death so disturbing Kim does not tease and manipulate the audience by plunging innocents into peril for cheap empathy; instead, he molds a boy into an ungrateful, spiteful little shit, then calls our bluff by killing him. It is one of the most inexplicably hostile acts I've ever seen, and it left me unable to sort out who I hated most: the boy, the maid for tricking him into accidental suicide, or myself for indirectly wanting this to happen the entire time until it actually did. Kim can engender that feeling of self-loathing seemingly in any frame, especially in the manner in which he frames sex: he doesn't show a bit of skin, but when he focuses on odd details, such as the maid's bare feet standing on the husband's, the fade-cut over the actual act cannot elide over the sudden wash of dirtiness that cascades down the back of the neck.
Yet for the comparisons to Buñuel and Hitchcock, Kim Ki-young can be best figured out mainly by filtering him through those who followed, from the aforementioned modern Korean directors to the work of Roman Polanski, whose Apartment trilogy would adopt, however unintentionally, the off-kilter, subtly shrinking frame that creeps up on the audience until you blink and suddenly the film is half its original size and a hell of a lot more terrifying. By focusing intently not on the rich but the middle class who pursues wealth at all costs, The Housemaid attains a moral complexity that sidesteps a screed. The maid, in all her terrifying glory, can and should be seen as an entity unto herself, a creature who destroys without reason à la Iago. She does, though, have her metaphorical weight: the maid herself might have no motive to abuse and kill the family, but her symbolic representation as the working-class refusing to let the Kims shake it off so casually adds an element of disturbing commentary to her significance. Her abuse is not so much revenge or class warfare as self-annihilation, the faction of the working class that gets put down even by members of the same social rank finally lashing back at the hypocrisy. "Is it okay you treated my body like a toy?" the maid screams at the couple, and however much she herself manipulated both of them into messing with her body, she has a point concerning how much the Kims dehumanized her from the start.
At last, Kim moves back to his framing device, compounding the mass delirium of the climax by providing one of the most stupefying yet hilariously gratifying "It was all a dream" reveals ever. As the husband and his intact family finish reading the paper, the husband's boisterous laugh indicates that what we saw is not how he really envisioned the story he read at the start. Then, the wife leaves the room to send away the maid in fear of tempting her husband, who turns to the camera in direct address, his cheerful, didactic speech an ironic subversion of whatever insipid morality gets pushed in these kinds of addresses. The man may be speaking about temptation, but the director clearly thinks that the sex is the least of the worries brought up by the middle class getting its own servants, and the final parting shot may just be the knockout blow in one of the most unsettling, devastating critiques in all of cinema.