Crime · Criterion Collection · Drama · South Korea · Violence

#670 The Housemaid (1960)


#670 The Housemaid

1960 // South Korea // Kim Ki-young

Criterion Collection (LINK)

The Housemaid is a profoundly subversive and provocative immoral tale written and directed by the South Korean director Kim Ki-young. Released in 1960, just one year before the commence of military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, the film is often hailed as one of the best film made during the “Golden Age” of Korean cinema. The film could easily catch you off guard for what’s coming in its unsettling depiction of human behavior driven purely by primitive desire. The story slowly builds up its momentum, and when it reaches the central battleground of revenge, it gets so extreme that one could find the plot outrageously implausible and illogical from the view of modern perspective, yet the film’s excessiveness constantly remains you that the story is rooted at the time and place where nothing is logical.

The film tells a story of the married piano teacher (Kim Jin-kyu) and his upper-middle class family, including a pregnant wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo) who works as a part-time seamstress at home, a limping daughter (Lee Yu-ri) and a mischievous young son (Ahn Seong-gi). The family has recently moved to a new two-story house and urgently needs a housemaid for the domestic chores. The financial constraint requires the husband to teach piano lesson to factory workers constituted of young women. As a macho Korean man, the husband follows the standard of moral and turns up a love letter written to him by Miss Kwak (Ok Gyeon-hee), a young factory worker and one of his fellow students, to her boss which eventually leads to her dismission and subsequent suicide. The guilt-ridden husband turns down the love of another student Miss Cho (Um Aeng-ran), the one who actually responsible for the words in the love letter, but eventually surrenders to temptation and has a sexual relationship with the newly hired housemaid (Lee Eun-shim). The then-pregnant housemaid is forced by the wife to lose her unborn child and hence decides to take measures for avenging her loss.

The housemaid, instead being an exploited sympathetic woman, is portrayed as a diabolical perpetrator and a perplexedly complex victim. She acts according to her desire or in response to her explicit emotion. There’s a primitiveness invoked in her character, she kills a mouse with her bare hand, she avenges her loss of child by harming the children in the family or otherwise threatens to expose the scandal publicly. The couple has no choice but to compromise, and step by step the family starts to crumble. The image of rat poison and the stair are recurring motifs, like in a Hitchcock thrillers, which often signifies a downfall and disaster. There’s a shot of a glass of water presumably added with rat poison very much reminiscing the shot of luminous glass of milk in Suspicion (1941), moreover, the compulsive desire invoked in the character of housemaid serves as a nice juxtaposition to the obsessive passion found in Vertigo (1958).

The catastrophic interior shots of the family’s house captured by Kim Deok-jin’s cinematography visualised a maze of psychological game between the married couple and the housemaid, the space is then filled up by the mechanical sound of the wife’s sewing machine at the first floor, while the unnerving banging notes from the piano played by the housemaid haunts the upper floor. The ominous music by Han Sang-gi occasionally overflowed the scene and evokes excessive emotion when the story goes beyond the extreme in a downward spiral. The film is bookended with the scene of the husband reading out the news from a newspaper concerning a married man having adultery with the family’s housemaid, thus constructing a story-within-story framework of the entire film. This partly explains the near hysterical non-sense at the end of the film while providing excuse for presenting taboo immorality onscreen during that still-conservative period of time, it epitomizes the term trangressive at the end nonetheless.

Film Rating: 4/5

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