Friday, June 24, 2011

Movie Review: "The Housemaid" by David Pretty

An Nyoung,  Korean Movie Mavens!

I've had some pretty jarring experiences with Asian cinema of late.  A Tale of Two Sisters wowed me with trippy imagery and a "what's real/what's not?" storyline.  The Eye floored me with some of the most lingering and distressing images I've seen captured on film.  Audition lured me into a false sense of security and then t-boned my expectations in the intersection of Convention Avenue and Blasé Boulevard.

The Housemaid strives to join this hallowed company with a shocking finale.  But unlike Audition, where you can vaguely comprehend the motivation of its crazed female antagonist, here the actions of the put-upon anti-heroine seem downright arbitrary.  Frankly, this is a real shame since the rest of the film is pretty top-shelf.

Before we dissect, here be the trailer:

So, as you may be able to gather after watching this, The Housemaid definitely falls squarely into the erotic thriller genre.  But is it?  Thrilling and erotic, that is?  Well, in the largest sense, I'd say yes.

The film begins with a suitably odd preamble which sets the tone for the entire film.  While working in a bustling restaurant,  Eun-Yi (Do-yeon Jeon) witnesses a very ugly public suicide.  Looking to escape the rigors of urban employment, she enters the employ of the very wealthy Hoon Goh (Jung-Jae Lee) and his beautiful and very pregnant wife Hae-Ra (Seo Woo).  Little does she know that she's inadvertently waltzed right into a veritable hornet's nest. 

As it turns out, Hoon isn't quite content with making wons hand over fist, living in a phat palatial crib and banging his hot wife.  Nope, we're barely fifteen minutes in and he's all over Eun-Yi like a fat kid on an Eggo.

And so I had my first twinge of skepticism when Eun-Yi barely resists Hoon's skeezy advances.  In caving into the whole "open robe and proffered wine" angle almost immediately, Eun-Yi quickly squanders a lot of her initiative with the audience.  Granted, Hoon's wife is a bit of a high-maintenance bee-yotch but I don't think she deserves the sort of instant rank betrayal that Eun-yi is so willing to subject her to.

Mercifully, Eun-Yi is still depicted as quite cute and likable.  She's shy, sweet, and very good at her job.  She also proves to be a marvelous companion for Nami (Seo-Hyeon Ahn), Hoon and Hae-Ra's accessory/ daughter.  I fact, the kid seems to adopt Eun-Yi as her own sister/surrogate parent in lieu of the spiritual vacancy of her own progenitors.

Amidst all the soap opera dramatics, Eun-Yi finds a potential ally in Miss Cho (Yeo-Jong Yun), the mansion's veteran servant.  On several occasions, we're meant to ponder just where this woman's loyalties lie.  Initially she seems somewhat protective of the innocent new hire, but not long after she's serving up heaping piles of steamy gossip to Mi-Hee (Park Ji-young), Hae-Ra's bloodless mother.  It's difficult to say conclusively whether or not she's motivated by a sense of duty or some peculiar jealousy over Hoon's attentions to her younger protege.

Soon rumors of the affair begin to swirl.  While Eun-Yi is dusting a chandelier she's conveniently bumped off by Mi-Hee.  The hapless girl dangles off the thing precariously for an agonizing stretch of time, but no one comes to her aid and eventually she falls to the distant floor below.  She's rushed to the hospital where, to Hae-Ra and Mi-Hee's chagrin, she's merely diagnosed with a concussion and then sent back to the mansion.  Not longer after, a revelation surfaces which immerses Eun-Yi into a whole new level of peril.

The Housemaid does much more right then it does wrong.   The cinematography is appropriately austere and director Im Sang-Soo comes up with some startlingly good set-ups.  There's a tremendous shot which sees the camera hovering just above and behind Hoon's car as it races towards the family's duplicitous holiday destination.  It seems terribly oppressive as if some subconscious weight is bearing down on the incestuous clan.

Another keen shot is almost like an on-camera split screen.  It shows Hoon standing mid-frame in a hallway at the entrance of two rooms.  In the bad-chamber to his left is his aloof, self-absorbed, wine-sipping wife amidst her dark and opulent surroundings and in the pristine bathroom on the right is paranoid, barefooted Eun-Yi, feverishly scrubbing away at the tub that Hae-Ra just emerged from.  Hoon is seen drifting incrementally in her direction.  It's a fantastic visual composition and manages to communicates a wealth of character beats without employing a single line of dialogue.           

Much has been said about the supposedly scandalous sex scenes.  Yes, there are some pretty racy sequences here, but there aren't as many as you might expect and quite often they're used to underscore character traits. For example, there's a scene where Eun-Yi is tending to duties while Hoon lounges back with his head in his hands as if it's his divine right.  The choreography is quite tastefully done, alternating between abstract, steamy close ups and completely unpretentious wide shots which really ramp up the naughty factor.  

The dialogue is uniformly matter-of-fact and quite salty.  In quite a few Asian films the dialogue can sometimes be way too melodramatic or you get the impression that something is getting lost in translation.  Not so here.  Distinct personalities emerge through the lines and we get some cool little harbingers such as when Miss Cho tells Eun-Yi during her interview: "The men in this family are really something. Probably why they're so rich."

The spicy lines are well-represented by a very capable cast.  It's a real credit to lead actress Do-Yeon Jeon for infusing what is essentially an adulterous character with so much pathos.  She's shy, retiring, humble and her scenes with young Nami feel very genuine.  Knowing that she isn't going to get much help from the script, Do-Yeon wisely sneaks in quite a few subtle tics that makes the film's operatic conclusion seem more plausible.  Having said that, I have to credit the screenwriters for giving Eun-Yi a few habitual behaviors that the less scrupulous characters can (and do) exploit.          

Jung-Jae Lee as Hoon is perfectly appointed.  He effortlessly projects the sort of egotistical, wry, self-entitled quality that the script demands of the character.  I can't recall the last time I've seen such a perfect exhibition of note-perfect douche-nozzlery in a film.  In the end it's intensely gratifying to witness his smug expression begin to whither as he begins to experience a completely foreign loss of control.

Seo Woo as Hae-Ra is impossibly gorgeous and does a fine job acting as if she's well aware of that fact.  She's not a totally loathsome character like her husband but she really seems to revel in keeping the underlings in their places and assigning the most demeaning tasks to Eun-Yi.  Although in many ways she's the wounded party here, her complicity in all the skulduggery really nullifies any sympathy we may harbor for her.  Seo Woo plays her like a vengeful, spoiled, petulant princess who's angelic countenance hides a ruthless architecture just underneath.

Proving that the rotten apple doesn't fall far from the tree, Mi-Hee, as portrayed by Park Ji-Young, is the real villain of the piece.  After all, she's the one who orchestrates the ladder accident after leaning of the affair.  What's even more interesting is that, after Eun-Yi survives the fall, Mi-Hee tries to convince her daughter to ignore his philandering because "all wealthy men cheat on their wives" and by accepting it she can "live like a queen".  In light of proceeding events and what's to come, I find this moment to be supremely disturbing.

Park Ji-Young really seems to relish this evil matriarch/Dragon Lady role.  You get the sense that everything she says and does is designed to guard her station and keep the serfs in line.  Even more so then her fictional daughter, her flawless visage is just a mask meant to conceal a nest of mental vipers.  There are very few actresses who can pull off the ironic smile like she can.

Yeo-Jong Yun's turn as Miss Cho the "seen it all" world-weary housekeeper is another marvel.  She's an interesting character to keep an eye on.  At first she seems to be using loyalty as a scapegoat when she outs the affair, but you get the distinct impression that her initial actions have very selfish undertones.  When the family starts to go off the deep end in their increasingly irrational campaign against Eun-Yi, Miss Cho becomes a tempest of conflict.  Yeo-Jong Yun does a fantastic job slowly working this turmoil to the surface, first in private and then in the film's notorious final stand.

Also worth a mention is Seo-Hyeon Ahn as Nami.  You get the impression that the little girl's parents aren't half as aware as she is about the duplicity that goes on behind closed doors.  Indeed, Nami seems to gravitate unconsciously to Eun-Yi just because she offers up a modicum of sincerity.  Despite her young age, Seo-Hyeon's performance is remarkably measured and her scenes with Do-Yeon Jeon are stellar.  It's retroactively tragic to ponder that Nami's innocent desire to confide in Eun-Yi is the catalyst for the film's brutal finale.

And its these last few scenes that really comprise my main problem with the film. They just don't jibe with what we've seen up to then.  If we'd gotten a few Fatal Attraction-flavored clues throughout the film to rationalize Eun-Yi's actions, I might have been more accepting.  Audition, with its even more vicious "out of nowhere" cruelty, was much more believable just because the screenwriters had taken the time to plant some seeds in the script that made it reasonable.  Horrible, yet reasonable.

Nevertheless, I'm loathe to cast out the love child with the bathwater.  The Housemaid is a well-shot, well-acted, well-crafted little character study/nominal thriller that manages to generate a modest amount to tension.  It's just a pity that the "What the eff?" ending seems almost tacked on just because no-one had bothered to sneak those cards onto the table earlier.        


Tilt: up.

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