January 25, 2021
ne of the key inspirations behind Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) was The Housemaid (1960), a twisty psychological thriller written and directed by Kim Ki-young. It isn’t hard to spot the fundamental similarities. If to pare down their narratives to the barest of a summary, both movies find working-class outsiders usurping the inward-looking existences of an upper-class family. But whereas Bong’s approach to
this story took a comprehensive look at the inner lives and struggles of his characters, helping build what would ultimately be an incisive commentary on capitalistic cruelty, Kim leans more toward the melodramatic and ideologically traditionalist — and his movie suffers as a result.
The Housemaid begins with a composer, Kim Dong-sik (Kim Jin-kyu), reading aloud to his several-months-pregnant wife, referred to in the film only as Mrs. Kim (Ju Jeung-ryu), a lurid story plastered on the front page of this week’s newspaper — about a well-to-do family man who gave up everything to be with the housemaid. “Men are such fools — taking interest in a maid,” Mrs. Kim scoffs as she tends to her sewing. But Dong-sik doesn’t think it so foolish — more understandable. Their own family is pretty dependent on the hired help; in fact, some days, Dong-sik points out, their housemaid is the first person to greet him when he comes home from work. (He teaches music at a nearby factory; the bulk of his students are young women.) Falling in love with a maid isn't that far-fetched. Predictably, all this chatter functions as an indirect forecast of where this movie is going. Soon, it will be Dong-sik feeling susceptible to the beauty of the family housemaid — a capricious, recently hired young woman named Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim) — and it will be their affair (or, in the film’s eye, this young woman, who turns out to be something of a manipulative femme fatale) that will engender the downfall of this once-steady family.
The Housemaid leans rather conservative in its storytelling. In keeping with latter-day movies like Fatal Attraction (1987), which has a spiritually similar plot (you can see the seeds of the modern erotic thriller being unwittingly planted in The Housemaid), it extols the virtues of an orthodox family structure. Any deviation from it is not merely a deviation but the thing that brings a sort of ruin as exaggerated as something one would dream up while still in the throes of a nightmare. It isn’t inherently conservative to say that infidelity can bring about problems; what is backward-looking, and vexing, about The Housemaid and a scion like Fatal Attraction is that the blame for the familial decay is mostly pinned on the other woman. The man, though not outrightly sympathized with, is mostly characterized as foolish and preyed upon. The underlying thought is that this affair almost “happened” to him. In both movies, the femme fatale characters are not much more than evil incarnate. They live solely to torment, and the narrative watches hungrily as they inflict both physical and emotional violence on the male leads and their loved ones for reasons that don’t seem to have a basis in any sort of reality — just misogynistic anxiety.
It’s easy to enjoy Lee’s performance in The Housemaid — it has a persuasively animalistic thrust — but she’s playing little more than a caricature. The movie is uninterested in giving her any sort of meaningful background or inner life; most of the women in The Housemaid are not much more than simplistic depictions of “crazy,” to varying degrees. The movie's epilogue explains some of this insularity, but it doesn’t suddenly redeem what has come before it. Whether the bulk of the content seen in The Housemaid is hypothetical, as this epilogue suggests, we are still to take in a conservative, pretty misogynistic viewpoint as the preeminent one in the movie — the one worthiest of exploration. There’s a “bitches be crazy” flavor seasoning its final few lines.
I think the movie might have been richer if it were to dramatize various perspectives, in the style of Rashomon (1950) or The Killing (1956), or if it unfolded with more of a grasp of Lee’s interior world and what motivates her. What we have, instead, is a carefully designed thriller that, while beautifully photographed (cinematographer Kim Deok-jin’s photography is attractively pearlescent), has no more valuable insight than a trifling, plot-driven soap opera. C