Nanny dear­est

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The House­maid, thriller, rated R, in Korean with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 2.5 chiles

IIt’s a woman’s world in The House­maid, al­though it wouldn’t mean any­thing with­out a man’s touch. This South Korean thriller — a re­make of the 1960 South Korean film Hanyo — looks at what hap­pens when a maid and nanny named Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) is given the full trust of a fam­ily, forced into a sit­u­a­tion in which she vi­o­lates that trust, and in­curs the wrath of the other women in the house. It’s an en­gag­ing turf war on dis­play, of­ten short on phys­i­cal vi­o­lence but no less ruth­less than it would be if we swapped out all the es­tro­gen for testos­terone.

You can see in that brief plot de­scrip­tion how pas­sive verbs are of­ten used to de­scribe Eun-yi’s arc. That’s an ac­cu­rate re­flec­tion of the film — to a point. Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), the pa­tri­arch of the house, is used to get­ting what he wants. The women of the house are happy to oblige him, whether it’s his preg­nant wife (Seo Woo), her con­niv­ing mother (Park Ji-young), his young daugh­ter (Ahn Seo-hyeon), or his long­time maid (Yun Yeo-jong). Eun-yi steps into this house­hold, and it quickly be­comes clear that she is some­thing Hoon now wants and will soon get. It is also clear that any at­tempts she makes to pur­sue what she wants will be met with swift and cruel pun­ish­ment.

We know this be­cause it has been the case for cen­turies with fic­tional heroines, par­tic­u­larly those with­out fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity. Some artists, like di­rec­tor Lars von Trier, have made ca­reers out of telling these sto­ries. As you can imag­ine with a story about a maid, the “up­stairs/down­stairs” dy­namic also gets se­ri­ous mileage. There is a clear de­lin­eation be­tween the wealthy fam­ily and the lower-class hired help, and there are un­spo­ken rules of en­gage­ment be­tween them. Eun-yi is new to the sit­u­a­tion, and what makes her a threat to the other women — both up­stairs and down — is that she doesn’t fully un­der­stand these rules. She’s so naive that she doesn’t even pick up the con­de­scend­ing dis­gust the fam­ily holds for the lower class and ig­nores the ob­vi­ous con­tempt with which the el­der maid re­gards the fam­ily.

Writer and di­rec­tor Im Sang-soo plays to this dy­namic in his vis­ual sto­ry­telling, fre­quently po­si­tion­ing the more vul­ner­a­ble and sub­mis­sive char­ac­ters lower in the frame and us­ing odd ver­ti­cal cam­era move­ments to con­vey sub­tle power shifts. He makes good use of the stair­cases and

Jeon Do-yeon, cen­ter, as the ti­tle char­ac­ter of The House­maid

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