Published in Korean Quarterly, Fall 2011
by Aaron Mannino
In 1960, Ki-Young Kim made a film entitled Hanyo (The Housemaid), and in 2010, filmmaker Sang-soo Im did the same. The titles are identical, but Im’s version is more a reimagining of Kim’s reputed masterpiece than a classic remake.
There are many similarities. Both artists use cinema to explore how a foreign presence (a woman who becomes a housemaid to the family) can expose flaws in the architecture of a system. The “system” here is a family. From the basic principle of exposure-through-intrusion, Kim and Im’s Housemaids express a realm of horror that arises from sexual and material desire, laced with overtones of social critique. They design stories about human fallibility with a unique quality of “sympathetic ambiguity,” by which the seeming “victims” of their films are always complicit with their own undoing. I have found this to be distinct among much of Korean cinema, especially those films in the prolific revenge/horror genre.
Both incarnations of The Housemaid describe a family’s downfall after their patriarch impregnates a housemaid. Aside from their title and setup, each film is distinctive and contemporaneous to the time in which it was created. Each reflects its maker’s unique sensibilities.
Ki-young Kim centers his story on the newly-middle-class household of piano composer/teacher Dong-shik, his pregnant wife, and their two children. After moving into a new two-story house, earned by the sweat and exhaustion of the wife’s dedicated needlework, a housemaid is selected from the ranks of the factory at which Dong-shik teaches choir. The unnamed housemaid is thin, slinky, and curious in her movements. She immediately stirs commotion with her emotional detachment and her disregard for the children.
One night, after seeing Dong-shik rebuff a piano student’s confession of her love, the housemaid springs into action and seduces him with unexpected success. The housemaid becomes pregnant and Dong-shik confesses to his wife. To preserve the household’s reputation, his wife convinces the housemaid to miscarry by having an “accident” on the staircase. Thereafter, the machinations of the desirous and disturbed housemaid sends Dong-shik’s household into a self-topping sprawl of misery, vengeance, and intimidation.
In each of these filmmakers’ visions, cinematography is the most vocal element. The camera is used to describe two opposing worlds; the common versus the opulent; the upstairs and the downstairs, and the social and the personal.
Im imagines a lower/middle-class apartment-renter who works in an environment of opulence, and the camera emphasizes that polarity. Cinematographer Hyung-deok Lee visualizes the outside world - and moments of “commonness” - in documentary style. The brief opening sequence sets the grit and immediacy of the outside world. The shots are warmly lit, showing Eun-yi working with her portly friend as a dishwasher, people walking in the streets and enjoying nightlife in window-front bars, crowds eating and talking, and markets flourishing.
Im offers a fleeting glimpse into the class divide, where some prepare food and others enjoy it. While the texture of life unfolds, Im revisits a disheveled woman atop a building, always with her back to the camera. She climbs over a railing, makes her way to the edge, and leaps. A commotion stirs with reactions of concern, curiosity, and apathy.
Later that night, Eun-yi and her friend return to the scene of the suicide, the light is now cool blue. Their motor-scooter approaches the woman’s chalk outlines and the camera makes a precise, V-shaped fall-and-rise crane shot. From this grim icon, Eun-yi enters the world of a “higher class.” The new clean camera movement, which presides in most of the film thereafter, is associated with this death and with emptiness.
In Goh-hoon’s mansion, Im captures each polished surface and structured space with geometry, residing in cool muted tones. Architecture dictates the smooth movement of the camera, and implies that there is no fragility in this family’s status. Within the household, Im’s camera follows a motif of pans and track-in/track-outs. These motions speak as much to opulence as they do to sexuality. The cinematographer translates ideas of penetration, extraction and caress as the lens presses into, away from, and along surfaces.
Kim uses the same gliding motif, equally integrated into the fabric of storytelling. Every space and character of Kim’s Housemaid is defined by this smooth tracking camera. Kim’s connotation with cinematography is partly sexual, partly a swinging pendulum that counts the days of misery in physical and emotional confinement. For example, a descending crane movement is used just outside of Dong-shik’s house each time a guest approaches; the viewer zooms in from above. Kim seems to suggest that approaching this house means descent to degradation, not ascent into positive space.
Dong-shik’s family swims drudgingly upstream from lower to middle class by embracing a code of materialism. They are not a bourgeois family, rather, they are hard-working and fearful, unable to actually enjoy their upgraded lifestyle. Kim’s setup is reflective of the shaky economic climate of South Korea in the late ‘50s to early 60’s South Korea, during which owning a house was the most powerful and stable asset one could obtain.
The couple create a mixture of desperation and over-extension, the breeding ground for the film’s unrest. Acquisition of space is their ultimate vanity, as they aim to occupy a two-story house. Therefore emptiness becomes the film’s paradigm of materialism, as well as the basis of The Housemaid’s visual language. The camera pours over the emptiness of rooms and hallways, as the characters reveal the emptiness of their hearts. Contrasted against the vacated space is a revolving constellation of objects (rats, poison, water, stairs, the piano, the sewing machine), which Kim draws fully into drama to create powerful degrees of tension.
The biggest difference in Im’s and Kim’s films, beyond the 50-year gap, is that they are commenting on different times and different socio-economic realities through drama.
Only small gestures are made by Im to place his film in a contemporary time period. Brief appearances of an iPhone, and an iRobot vacuum, are the only “updates” to speak of. Im seems to isolate the viewer in an experience of the house’s removal from time, common life and even from specific culture. Nothing within the mansion speaks of a particular Korean modernity, and is frankly western in its design, furniture, meals, wine, attire, and music.
Absent these details, where typically modern technology might be evoked to express alienation and detachment, what is Kim’s parallel statement to Im’s original film treatise on the materialistic grasping of the modern age?
Kim goes to great lengths to forge a bond between wealth and means by showing what Dong-shik and his wife do. The wife is slavishly stuck to a sewing machine to earn money, and Dong-shik must continue to teach piano. The two are shown in many scenes from many angles, performing these tasks; most poignantly in the opening scenes where Dong-shik and his wife are crowded in their small living room together, seated using their hands and pressing petals. Kim creates a visual analogy of the couple’s unified struggle.
Later, in their two-story household, the piano room is upstairs and the wife’s sewing machine remains downstairs. Here they are literally divided from one another by their “affluence.”
In both films, sex introduces a riptide into an already-churning sea of tension. Kim and Im present their sex scenes as accumulations of strange details.
The seduction in Im’s Housemaid is carried out in three significant scenes. The first scene is a suggestive glance between Goh-hoon and Eun-yi. He walks in on her washing the couple’s bathtub. The camera captures sexuality in her movements, caressing a smooth round surface, her legs exposed as she squats. In the second scene, things become physical. After his pregnant wife is unable to satisfy him, Hoon descends the staircase of their winter cottage into Eun-yi’s sleeping space. He presents himself shirtless, offers her wine, and caresses her gently. Eun-yi is hardly resistant. She looks awkwardly around the room, and then yields to his suggestion, even becoming enthusiastic.
For the third and final seduction Goh-Hoon awakes at night and strolls into Eun-yi’s room with wine, his singular trick. She has been waiting for him, and they fall into her bed together. Diverging from the established rules of cinematography, we see drastic close-ups of their sweaty bodies; his abdomen, the small of her back. The light is pure and bright and the tones of flesh are warm. It is as if the abstraction of their forms is a visual reset for the viewer after many shots of architecture and cool tones.
Im’s seduction is diametrically opposite of the main seduction in the original Housemaid, in which Dong-shik the patriarch is coerced by the housemaid. There is an undercurrent starting early in the film, Dong-shik offers the housemaid a cigarette and tells her to smoke, which she does fervently. A bright piano melody, played by Dong-shik’s student upstairs, is a contrast to this dark foreshadowing of betrayal. The main scene of seduction is magnified by built-up stress. A factory woman shows interest in him, and sends a note; later, a piano student admits her attraction to him face to face. The confinement of the narrow house, and the storm raging outside build up the tension to a tipping point.
Strange details accrue as the housemaid lures Dong-shik into her room; the dropped cigarettes, the skin of her back, her shifting glances that denote thrill and curiosity about what her own actions will lead to, her bare feet placed upon his shoes to stop his walking away, her hands wrapped around his back to keep him close. In those two moves, a slim, small seductress paralyzes a man. Moments before, he had slapped another woman down to the floor who tried to entrap him. This third attempt at his affections, the most primal, breaks him down.
These two seductions reveal the difference of the times in which the two characters live, in particular, the external forces of the economy around them. Im’s film has a strong persuasive man at its center; rich beyond imagining. In contrast, Kim’s male protagonist seems almost incapable; fearful of his stature. He must yield to the housemaid, and he is unable to deny his wife her dreams of affluence. He is worn down by the effort to get ahead, and possibly emasculated by his wage-earning wife.
These scenes also speak to the differences between housemaids. As Ishirô Honda (who created Godzilla and Mothra) might unearth a monster amid the context of nuclear ambitions or shrewd post-war enterprise, Kim releases the housemaid into an environment of middle-class materialism and post-armistice malaise. The family’s frail sanctity in an upward economic crawl might as well be Nagoya city, lying in wait for the ravages of a lumbering unsympathetic creature to sweep through and crumble buildings like toys. Kim’s housemaid appears to us first from inside a closet at the factory dorms, shrouded in smoke from her cigarette as she slinks into the dorm room. She is literally a monster in a closet, unleashed.
Kim’s housemaid is childlike, obsessive, watchful, conniving, and capable only of extremes. She observes the attempts of two young women vying for Dong-shik’s love, and adopts that ambition in her own plot. The housemaid is the puppeteer who can manipulate and degrade those with whom she interacts. Kim’s housemaid brazenly tries to possess Dong-shik, caring nothing for the children or the wife and sees to it that they are subjugated by misery, holding their reputation ransom. Im’s housemaid, on the other hand, is the victim of forces she has unleashed..
As a viewer, it is difficult to discern clear victimhood, therefore, it is difficult to sympathize. Ultimately, Kim’s housemaid is a self-destructive force, and a victim of her own malicious personality.
If there is a monster in Im’s Housemaid, it is not Eun-yi - although she is pushed to monstrous action at the height of her punishments. Eun-yi is neither malicious nor derisively ambitions. She is simply one who easily yields to her sensual desires. Eun-yi is is made solely the brunt of the spiraling consequences of her betrayal. As we see her being brutalized by Hae-ra and her mother; forced into an abortion, a drugging, and her attempted murdered, we take pity on Eun-yi. Although she is also culpable for the situation that unravels, the severity of the reprimand is extreme against her and against the innocent child within her.