In a brief scene in the original The Housemaid, directed by Kim Ki-young in 1960 during a short window of freedom from governmental intervention in the South Korean film industry, some men move a clunky television into the cramped family room of the new house of the film’s protagonist couple. Once plugged in, the TV’s screen fills ours until both are filled with a row of white women dancing, interrupted by rows of static. We don’t see the television again, but that moment contains the most skin and the only non-Koreans in the film, and shortly after its appearance, the family begins to spectacularly disintegrate.
Kim’s film is as cramped and winding as the sharp hallways of the small house its action is mostly confined to (about half its scenes, and all of the explosive ones, take place on the house’s stairway), but its core is clearly the invasion of a traditional yet ambitiously petty bourgeois family by an outsider, a young factory worker who becomes their maid (Lee Eun-shim), falls in love with the piano-teacher husband (Kim Jin-kyu), and becomes pregnant — at least for a while — with his child. The film’s volatile, writhing tone, which often seems to grate against the action it depicts, must have captured something of the 12-year-old country’s political uncertainty: 1960 saw the collapse of one government and the creation of a new one. And the film’s release also coincided with — and its upwardly mobile family predicted — the beginnings of South Korea’s impressive economic growth, which lifted the country out of poverty.
The Housemaid’s weird translation of these political and economic circumstances into the domestic realm has made it one of Korea’s most acclaimed films. But today, a family struggling to become middle class is more curiosity than representative in the world’s 15th largest economy. And a morality tale about the dangers that pretty young femme fatales pose to older husbands and their families now seems more sexist than au courant (although abortion, a major issue in both films, is still technically illegal in South Korea), as director Im Sang-soo, in his new adaptation of The Housemaid, acknowledges — or at least pokes fun at — as the (trophy) wife’s character (Seo Woo as Hae-ra) reads The Second Sex in the spare moments between her pregnant yoga classes and her scheming to force her housemaid to have an abortion.
Im Sang-soo is fully aware that times have changed, and for his The Housemaid, Im’s gutted most of the original’s plot, a few of its characters, and much of its ambiguity and manic rhythm. He’s also gutted the house itself — the humble dwelling of 1960 renovated into a gargantuan compound of nouveau riche marble, as sparsely and often unthinkingly furnished as a porno set, albeit with more expensive décor. Aside from the crux of the plot — infidelity and dueling pregnancies — what remains is mostly architectural: a piano, a fondness for sliding doors, and a conspicuous, menacing staircase, refurbished chunks of 1960s mise-en-scene that symbolically link the film with its predecessor well enough to allow its plot to be its own.
But the most prominent carryover from Kim’s The Housemaid comes from a piece of furniture that never even appears in Im’s film: the hint of sex and globalization that briefly flickered across that television screen. In this Korea, the street scenes are peppered with tourists, the millionaire husband (Lee Jung-jae as Hoon) jets around the world for international business, and the cuisine is French (only the servants eat kimchi). So is the wine, which Hoon, who obviously fashions himself a connoisseur, constantly glares at, sniffs, and even gargles throughout the first half of the film. He even holds onto a half-full glass while his pregnant wife, looking like she’d rather be painting her nails, distractedly rides him. He then sneaks the bottle into the maid’s (Jeon Do-youn as Eun-yi) room, pouring wine down her throat, and ordering her to suck his cock. She more than eagerly complies, even exclaiming how much she loves the smell of crotch, yet most of his pleasure seems to come from being pleased at his own irresistibility. And he’s still holding the wine, as if any moment he might get bored of such easy adoration and entertain himself with a drink.
It’s laughable, to be sure, but it’s also hot. Both sex and wealth always teeter on the verge of ridiculous exaggeration in The Housemaid, but never enough to turn us off completely, as Im’s lens easily whips up desire: food porn in the kitchen, HGTV porn throughout the house (damn, what a bathtub!), and R-rated porn with bodies. But there’s still a criticism of the rich in the film, even though we’d have to mop up our own drool to clearly see it. Unlike the nuanced marriage in the original, the relationship here is mostly an exchange: her doll-like looks for his money. And whereas in Kim’s film, the husband attracts women through his art and personality, the modern Hoon’s appeal is in simply feeling entitled to take — or having the means to buy — whatever he desires. As his wife’s mother tells her, as consolation after they learn of his infidelity with Eun-yi, she should expect him to cheat because he’s never had to work for anything he’s ever wanted (washboard abs excepted, probably).
Im’s The Housemaid mostly takes the perspective of the titular character, unlike its more family-focused predecessor. Hired to help the family with the arrival of a new child, Eun-yi lusts after Hoon, befriends his wife, and seems to really care for their child — all without any feeling of conflict. Eun-yi is an outsider who seems delighted and entertained by both her new surroundings and her role in them. We identify with her because of the former, but the latter response — with Jeon’s impressive performance — makes her character feel like an enigma even at her most sympathetic. It’s a weird kind of strength. Hae-ra may slap her around when she discovers she’s pregnant; Hoon may fuck her without (as she observes) even acknowledging she’s human; and Im’s camera may linger on her naked body to share her with us, too; but none of us possess Eun-yi. And by the end, finally veering into ridiculousness, Im burns this point into the film, literally, as Eun-yi demonstrates how the power to gaze upon a subject can so quickly turn into powerlessness to look away.