Why'd you have to do that? Judge Clark Douglas just finished washing the sheets.
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In recent years, South Korea has made quite an impression on the world of cinema, producing a host of films (including, uh, The Host, in addition to such well-regarded efforts as Oldboy, Musa, The Good The Bad The Weird, Thirst, and many others) that have resonated with moviegoers worldwide. Though some may object, I feel we should add director Im Sang-Soo's The Housemaid to that ever-increasing list of impressive South Korean flicks.
Our story concerns a young woman named Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon, Secret Sunshine), who accepts a job as a nanny for very wealthy family. The wife Hae-ra (Seo Woo) is pregnant with twins, her husband Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae, Il Mare) is a well-mannered businessman and their young daughter (Young Yuh-jung) is a quiet, polite little girl. The household's other employee is Mrs. Cho (Yun Yeo-jong), an aging woman who has worked with the family for many years.
Shortly after Eun-yi begins her new job, the husband seduces her. Eun-yi does not seem particularly enthralled by the husband, but she never resists his advances in any way. One night, Eun-yi and Hoon are spotted by Mrs. Cho, who gossips about what she has seen to Hae-ra's mother (Park Ji-yong). This sets off a chain reaction of events that become wilder and more diabolical as the film proceeds.
The Housemaid is a torrid chamber melodrama of the first order, a thoughtful examination of societal struggles set almost entirely within the confines of a lavish mansion. In this tawdry little tale of lust and scandal, we find a surprisingly affecting examination of class warfare. There is a sense of entitlement that comes with the family's vast wealth; a sense that anyone can be bought or sold for the right price. When they encounter someone who can't simply be paid off, we see that sense of entitlement beginning to rear its head in far more sinister ways.
The film's first half is stuffed with intriguing minutae, as we spend a good deal of time getting a sense of who these people are and what their lives are like. We follow Eun-yi as she gives Hae-ra a bath, reads the little girl a bedtime story, prepares an evening snack for the couple, receives a few lectures from Mrs. Cho and begins to feel comfortable with her work. This understated attention to detail even continues to dominate the proceedings during the scenes in which Hoon seduces Eun-yi. The scenes are not staged in a pornographic manner, but rather one that draws attention to the manner in which the characters behave during intimate moments. Consider a pair of back-to-back scenes in which Hoon receives fellatio—first from his wife, and then from Eun-yi. The camera pulls back from the action during the scenes, observing Hoon's reaction from a distance. When he is with his wife, he accepts what he is given contentedly and without much reaction. When he is with Eun-yi, he raises his arms in the air and flexes his muscles as if he were an Olympic athlete with a gold medal hanging around his neck.
As the film enters its second half, we begin lurching forward through a series of startling developments (which I will not reveal in this review) that lead us to the film's memorably fiery conclusion. What happens is certainly unlikely and wildly over-the-top, but this film is purposefully a melodrama and makes no apologies for that fact. Within the confines of its enjoyably lurid plot, we see larger themes at work, and recognize the subdued fury being directed at the less melodramatic variations of these events that happen in the real world every day.
The Housemaid concludes with a scene that comes out of left field. It's a surreal moment in an otherwise straightforward film; a Lynchian denouement in which South Korean characters suddenly speak in English (one even does an impression of Marilyn Monroe singing "happy birthday"). Its offbeat tone may prove bewildering at first, but after the shock fades the thematic relevance and startling resonance of the scene begins to reveal itself. It's an unexpectedly bold finish to a film that was unexpectedly bold to begin with.
The Housemaid arrives on DVD sporting a middling transfer, which is a particular shame given the film's gorgeous cinematography. Detail is lacking at times, and darker scenes (there are quite a few) tend to suffer from black crush. Too bad, because this is a great-looking film that deserves better. Audio is decent, though the track is very quiet (dialogue, music and sound design are all very subdued throughout—those wishing to watch the film without subtitles will need to crank up the volume). Extras include a brief making-of featurette and a trailer.
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