The screenplay for The Housemaid, a new thriller from South Korea, must have had audience reactions written in the margins. Because the narrative should be familiar to all of us, we react not because we don’t expect the film’s more violent and erotic moments, but because cues are being given to us. While watching the shirtless and well-toned husband leave his pregnant wife in their bed and creep downstairs to find his young new housemaid reading topless, our eyes don’t widen out of free will – we’re simply doing what we’re told.
Such is the case with Eun-yi, the new housemaid of a wealthy couple in South Korea. After being interviewed and hired by the surly elder housemaid Byung-sik, she moves in to the home of Hoon and Haera. Initially put in charge of watching their young daughter Nami, Eun-yi will be responsible for the family’s new twins once the very pregnant Haera gives birth. In the meantime, however, she makes herself familiar with the enormous home and the routines and demeanor of its residents. Reminiscent of movie homes like Gosford Park’s titular mansion and The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, Hoon and Haera’s sprawling architectural beauty is an extravagant, echoey chamber with two clear identities; for the family, it’s a place where you get what you want at any cost, but for the servants, it’s Shawshank with better food.
It doesn’t take long for the naïve Eun-yi to understand that Hoon’s sexual advances are entirely selfish in nature, nor does it take long for Byung-sik to learn (quite loudly) of their existence and inform Haera’s glamorous devil of a mother, Mi-hee. Once the cat’s out of the bag, the mansion becomes a kind of circus big top, thrilling the audience with gasp-worthy displays of violence, sex, and, by the end, pure showmanship. Writer/director Sang-soo Im handles the Sirkian melodrama with a light touch, wanting us delight in the ludicrousness of each action and piece of dialogue.
Movies like this are difficult to enjoy when they don’t go all the way. If you exaggerate a story without completely reveling in it, what’s the point in trying? Fortunately, Sang-soo and his cast take melodrama seriously, committing themselves to this deliciously outlandish story wanting only for us to sit back, enjoy the show, and gasp when we’re told.
The Housemaid: 4/5
It opens today at The IFC Center.