The Housemaid (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Housemaid (2011)

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ANDREW LIKEErotic thrillers are a bit trick to navigate.  Directing them is difficult because people have this natural tendency to giggle at what turns us on.  So the snag becomes how to present a path through the corridors of desire without causing the audience to chuckle or lose interest.  Then there are the questions left lingering as the film plays on.  Is it sexy?  Is it supposed to be?  What aspects of sex are being discussed?  How is it being utilized?

Sometimes those questions yield great films, such as the adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  But more often than not we're left with a frustrating (though interesting) mess of potential, which is the case with The Housemaid.  It is a remake of the landmark Korean film from 1960 (sadly unseen by me) brought to their shores just in time for it's 50th anniversary.  The story details the seduction and destruction of a hapless maid brought in to serve a wife and her powerful husband.

With that basic synopsis, most of the questions I posed at the beginning can be answered without having even watched the film.  This isn't necessarily a problem as there are only a few plots in this world, but there are thousands of ways to tell them.  The Housemaid doesn't find the most original or powerful way to navigate the well-worn territory of sex as power, but still has enough twists and turns to make the trip worthwhile.

The relationships that seem eerie at first turn out to be the most "normal", as much as anything in this film can be.

Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) is introduced to us after an eerily effective opening montage of people busily working as a woman falls to her death.  The act of montage connects the two together, but quickly the hard work surrounding the anonymous suicidal woman finds quick parallels to Eun-yi's new job as a second maid to Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) and his pregnant wife Hae Ra (Seo Woo).  They already have a daughter, the young and fairly subdued Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon) and the family is watched over very carefully by Byeong-sik (Yoon Yeo-jeong).

The path of the film is set early on when we see the destructive impulses of Hoon in bed and the lingering glances he gives over Eun-yi's body as she cleans.  He makes no mistake to hide his desire and is clearly a man who gets what he wants.  The question becomes not when Eun-yi will submit, or even when they will get caught, but how this incredibly insular family dominated by this powerful man will deal with their inevitable affair.

This is where I find The Housemaid discovers some of it's footing after a fairly routine, if gorgeous, opening.  The question always seems to be how the intruder is going to infect the family and destroy them from within.  The reverse is here in a twist of logic on the traditional formula that has always bugged me.

If the husband is so powerful and dominating, what does that say of the people who love him?  The secret is that they're just as crazy as he is.  This is made very clear when Hae Ra's mother (Park Ji-young) arrives and invites everyone to let loose on Eun-yi in as many ways as possible.  It's a subtle twist but one that puts an interesting dynamic on each of the characters once it is made known.

I love it when a single image perfectly encapsulates a family dynamic, there are many similar striking shots in this film.

Suddenly The Housemaid is a title that refers less to Eun-yi and more to the enigmatic Byeong-sik who presides over them all.  Byeong-sik could have been made a "scary butler" sort-of figure but she takes on a poignancy that was rather unexpected.  She has spent the brunt of her life protecting the world from this terrifying family and now, out of necessity, they have brought in a foreign element that is all too ready to be tainted.  They are a family ready to destroy someone to show they still have muscle, and the results of that flexing are as inevitable as they are heartbreaking.

Im Sang-soo is a new name to me, but it doesn't come as any surprise that he's another great director from Korea.    The Housemaid is a consistently beautiful film and he is always subtly engaging the audience with just how dangerous the family really is.  Many times we see the division between the family members as a tug-of-war between the corrupting and purifying influences, and Sang-soo follows suit with his colors and compositions.  The way he removes the fun out of the erotic is particularly effective, limiting sex down to two indistinguishable masses of pink and a sickening plop as the act goes on.

So while it's not an original statement to go on record and say "sex isn't always about pleasure" it's rare to see a filmmaker that let's the whole family get in on the sadistic fun.  But the logic is impeccable, if we love the people who go around punishing others for being pure, what does that say for ourselves?

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The Housemaid (2011)

Written and directed by Im Sang-soo.
Starring Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jung-jae and Ahn Seo-hyeon.

Posted by Andrew

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