The first in Kim Ki-young’s ‘Housemaid trilogy’ the original film, The Housemaid, was released in 1960 but was little known in the West until very recently. Ki-young’s The Housemaid is a stunning film that features a phenomenal performance by Eun-shim Lee as the titular housemaid. Despite bringing to mind films such as Leave Her to Heaven, Repulsion and Visitor Q, The Housemaid is a unique film and one filled with fascinating and complex characters.
This year Im Sang-soo has again brought the story to the big screen with a remake of The Housemaid. Changing many elements of the original story but keeping the basic structure the same Sang-soo has managed to make the film entirely his his own, for the worse though more than for the better.
The film begins with the hiring of Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) as the housemaid for a wealthy family. Unlike Ki-young’s film though Eun-yi is not the only housemaid and Eun-yi is mostly just tasked with looking after the rich couple’s young daughter Nami and the couple’s imminent next child. Very quickly Eun-yi begins an affair with the patriarch, Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), and although this appears to be initiated by Hoon there is a line later in the film that reveals that Eun-yi was ‘waiting for him’. Hoon is a pretty unpleasant character and seems to have few qualms about cheating on his pregnant wife. His wife too though is revealed to have slightly loose ethics.
The family and the housemaid could all be relatively interesting characters but they never really develop or change beyond the slight heightening of their initial character traits. This is to the film’s detriment as there is little complexity to the narrative and so the film rests on the characters. The characters are so blank and simplistic though that the whole affair becomes a little dull. In this lack of character development the film actually eschews one of the aspects that helped make the original film so compelling. The housemaid is no longer an influence that enters the small family unit and triggers a near total collapse. In Sang-soo’s The Housemaid the family appears to be an unlikeable group of surface level narcissists and at the end of the film they remain an unlikeable group of surface level narcissists, only with the memory of a dark period in their lives that is probably one of many.
The film is admittedly filled with beautiful cinematography and exquisite set design and costumes but it all feels very shallow. This could be part of a deliberate attempt to externalise the character traits in the aesthetic of the film or a happy accident but the result either way is quite hollow leaving a film that is pleasing to the eye but emotionally empty and generally much like an uninteresting soap opera.