Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid either doesn’t know what it wants to be, or is trying to be too many things at once. Few films can claim to be over-ambitious and half-hearted at the same time, but there you go. I understand the pressure is on Im. Remaking Kim Ki-young’s 1960 classic for its 50th anniversary; marking half a century in South Korean cinema; expected to create a film that will act – much like the original – as a time-stamped signifier of how far Korean cinema has come. Wild expectations like that have ruined greater filmmakers than he, so credit to the man for delivering a mostly-entertaining picture, and retaining his sanity. But I can promise you this: the film won’t inspire any brash young director to reboot it in 2060.
Jeon Do-yeon stars as Eun-yi, a doe-eyed young woman hired to be housekeeper for an obscenely affluent couple, and nanny to their daughter Nami. The woman of the house is pregnant with twins, and spends her spare time leafing through furniture catalogue. The man of the house is a powerful businessman, whose leisure activities include wine-tasting (a more annoying wine-taster you will not see) and taking advantage of his newly hired housemaid. The two spark an affair almost instantly, intoxicated by the act of sex rather than one another. They’re in it for themselves. He in particular just wants to flex his muscles while she pleasures him. And they say romance is dead! Eun-yi is eventually attracted to the prospect of becoming a mother when he gets her pregnant. But when the wife’s mother learns of the affair, she steps in, Lady Macbeth style, to recalibrate the power balance in her once great family at any cost.
The film is sexy, I’ll give Im that. Not having seen the original, I can’t fully compare, but I can only imagine the rather sensual (and occasionally even grotesque) sex scenes are new additions. The same goes for the rejigged screenplay, with more than a couple of blush-inducing lines that, if repeated here, would see me put away on obscenity charges. Aside from that, the narrative does not take any turns that would be out of the realm of possibility in 1960. When the film is at its best, it’s a biting social satire about the have and the have-nots, and the lengths the ‘haves’ will go to ensure that the ‘have-nots’ remain that way (the absurd wine-tasting sequence, and a bizarre fish-lensed coda are highlights). But too often Im (who also penned the remake) settles for Dynasty-styled melodrama; steering away from satire and settling for soap opera.
There are moments where it seems like he’s really trying to craft a timely, somewhat bizarre, Luis Buñuel-evoking parody of the upper-class. But they’re few and far between, and only serve to highlight how uninspired the rest of the film is. The best example of this confusing mishmash is in the film’s climax, but discussing it would be way too spoilerific. Without giving anything away, the ending is in theory outrageously tragic; in execution, it’s a little bit silly. But you won’t forget it anytime soon.