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