Director: Sang-soo Im
Writers: Sang-soo Im (screenplay), Ki-Young Kim (characters)
Cinematographer: Lee Hyung-deok
Starring: Do-yeon Jeon, Jung-Jae Lee, Seo-Hyeon Ahn, Seo Woo
Studio/Runtime: IFC Films/106 min.
There’s something almost perverse about the approach Im Sang-soo took in his remake of the Korean classic The Housemaid. The 2011 version seems at times to be a deliberate flip on the original, intentionally taking everything that made the 1960 Housemaid unique or interesting and methodically excising them. The original is a complex, claustrophobic suspense film, the equal of anything by Hitchcock or Clouzot, in which a psychotic new housemaid ruins the lives of the family she begins working for, while the remake is in nearly every respect its inverse, not only empathizing with the maid’s terrible plight but also removing the unpredictable tension of its predecessor.
This radical change in the film’s plot is in fact what makes the 2011 Housemaid almost completely banal and cliched. Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) plays an au pair/housemaid hired by a fantastically rich couple and—just like you’d suspect—soon enough the husband makes advances on his new servant. Then, in another event it’s impossible not to see coming from light years away, Eun-yi becomes pregnant with his child, which is soon found out by the family. It’s a classic story of sleeping with the help that’s as old as biblical times with not a surprising plot point in sight.
Story aside, The Housemaid does succeed at is eliciting universally good performances from its cast, who constantly seem ready to break off the film’s rails and react in interesting ways. They don’t, unfortunately, but the film’s few moments of tension stem from their interactions. Sang-soo departed just as much to the original’s style as he did its story, so gone are the tight spaces and expressionistic camerawork, replaced with startlingly open sets and (especially for a story told almost entirely indoors) beautiful yet cold angles. In essence The Housemaid looks like a period piece, shot in one of the most opulent houses ever to be filmed and featuring long shots that are classically well composed but divorced from their content. This conscious choice by San-soo is particularly jarring, since the film opens in a much more interesting manner with handheld cameras and ends with an over-the-top finale that would look silly in a Dario Argento movie. After 100 minutes of tedium, San-soo finishes things off with an uninterpretable ending that looks like it was stolen from Inland Emprie, its 30 seconds of screen-time making the rest of the film look especially dull in comparison.
2011’s Housemaid is technically superb and occasionally tries to make things more interesting with a modicum of class-conscious criticism, but for the most part it’s so bland as to be a complete waste of time. And since already Kim Ki-young made a pair of semi-remakes to his own film, it wasn’t even necessary in that capacity. So unless you feel compelled to see yet again what happens when a man has an affair with his servant, check out the original instead (available free here), and be baffled by how such an interesting story could be watered down so very far.