Sonatas for the servile class: The Housemaid **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 12, 2011)

So-are you searching for that perfect date movie? Korean director Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid would not be my first pick (unless your idea of a “perfect date movie” is, say, Angels and Insects, or maybe Crimes and Misdemeanors). However, if you are in the mood for a stylish mélange of psycho-sexual melodrama, psychological thriller, Greek tragedy and class warfare allegory, this could be your ticket.

An unassuming, angel-faced young divorcee named Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon), who lives in a dingy, low-rent apartment where she shares a bed with her mother, is offered a position as a housekeeper/nanny for a wealthy couple (expectant with twins) with a five-year-old daughter. Eun-yi eagerly accepts the job, exuding an almost child-like wonderment at her new employers’ palatial digs.

Indeed, this family seems to “have it all”. The husband, Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae) is impossibly handsome. Although it is never made clear as to what he does for a living (he leaves the house every day via limo, surrounded by an entourage-but that’s all we know), he definitely carries himself with that self-assured air of a Master of the Universe who is used to always getting what he wants, when he wants it.

His wife Haera (Seo Woo), is young, beautiful, and has “high-maintenance trophy” written all over her. Every night after work, Hoon cracks open a vintage bottle from his wine cellar, and after sitting down to an opulent meal with wife and child, retires to his music room to play classical sonatas (note-perfectly, of course) on a concert grand piano. Now, I can guess what you’re thinking right now-likely the same thing I was thinking: “Oh…that is so much like my life.” But, as a great lady once said (to quote Queen Eleanor, from The Lion in Winter) “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

There’s one member of the household who knows about all the “downs”. She is the long-time, long suffering elder housekeeper, Byung-sik (Yun-Yeo-Jong) who is giving Eun-yi the crash-course on the family’s quirks. Outspoken and wryly cynical whenever out of the family’s earshot, Byung-sik is like the career master sergeant who knows when to salute and  how much to defer-just enough to make the  captain think he’s the one actually running the company.

In the meantime, Haera and Hoon, while accepting of their new employee, essentially abandon her to Byung-sik’s tutelage and set about ignoring Eun-yi’s presence with that casual, chilly aloofness the filthy rich reserve for the help. Their daughter Nami (Ahn seo-hyeon), on the other hand, reaches out to the new nanny, reciprocated in kind by a delighted Eun-yi (although we are not sure whether this bond can be attributed to the non-judgmental mind of the five year old, or to the innocence of the childlike young woman).

Things appear to be going swimmingly, until late one sultry evening-when Eun-yi is startled awake by master Hoon looming over her bed, sporting that frisky “Speedos and open silk robe” look whilst coddling an open bottle of vintage  (and two glasses). One thing leads to another, and…you can guess the rest. Surprise surprise, Hoon is yet another creepy, arrogant rich prick with an overdeveloped sense of sexual entitlement-but we also learn Eun-yi may not be  as “innocent” as we initially thought. And once the family viper slithers into the pit-the Mother-in-Law (a scenery-chewing Park Ji-young), all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.

Gosh, one might assume from watching this film that the rich and powerful are generally concerned with little else in this life than remaining so, ever vigilant to decisively quash any threat of exposure or usurpation, no matter who or what gets hosed in the process. Then again-perhaps I’m projecting my own world view as to where the root cause of all sociopolitical evil lies…sometimes a psychological thriller is just a psychological thriller.

At any rate, writer-director Sang-soo (who based his screenplay on the eponymous 1960 Korean thriller, swapping the personalities of several principal characters) has fashioned an involving (if a little slow on the boil) entertainment. The Grand Guignol in the film’s climactic scene, capped by an enigmatic fade-out may prove a dream for some, a nightmare for others. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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