‘The Housemaid’ falls short of expectations

by Andrew Younger

Actress Jeon Do-yeon portrays the housemaid, in this yawn inducing, misguided, korean revenge flick. Courtesy of IFC Films
Actress Jeon Do-yeon portrays the housemaid, in this yawn inducing, misguided, korean revenge flick. Courtesy of IFC Films

An affluent husband’s hands glide across the black and white keys of a baby grand piano with the dexterity of a concert pianist while a wife wearing black and a maid dressed in white look on. This overt symbolism for the dangerous liaisons that transpire between them is repeated throughout the film and represents the height of subtlety for director Im Sang-soo’s “The Housemaid.”

A remake of the 1960 film of the same name, Sang-soo eschews the original film’s exploration of middle-class respectability in favor of a lurid depiction of South Korea’s nouveau riche that negates any statement he was attempting to make with the ill-conceived third act.

Actress Jeon Do-yeon portrays the naïve working-class ingénue Eun-yi (Note: The audience knows she is naïve because it is explicitly stated repeatedly) as she becomes the titular housemaid for the ultra-wealthy and scary businessman Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) and his extremely pregnant wife Haera (Seo Woo).

After a botched attempt at sex with his wife, Hoon stumbles down the stairs of his mansion with wine bottle in hand — presumably cinematic shorthand for decadence and moral decay — and seduces Eun-yi while flexing his biceps in the mirror a la American Psycho. However, Hoon’s impressive virility lands Eun-yi in trouble as she becomes pregnant and decides to keep the baby. When Haera discovers the soon-to-be bundle of joy, she sets plans in motion to ensure Eun-yi never carries the child to term.

The film devolves into a rote Korean sexually transgressive revenge tale (Note: The audience knows the film devolves into a revenge tale because a character states “I am going to get revenge” explicitly).

Foregoing the cinematic maxim of “show, don’t tell,” Sang-soo allows his characters to explain their emotions without hinting at any motivations to anchor their meaning. The overacting and heavy dialogue bog the movie down and hinder from the escapism that good cinema is supposed to encapsulate. Despite the starkly beautiful cinematography and the collective efforts of the actors involved to inject meaning, the director instead relies on clichéd motifs of black and white and the corrupting effects of a bottle of cabernet to apply a patina of moral distinction before jettisoning it altogether in the film’s last act.

These attempts seem entirely half-hearted and really do nothing to enhance the overall performance of the film.   Even worse is the film’s pacing that, in a poor attempt at foreshadowing, telegraphs future events via dialogue only to force the audience to wait for the plot to catch up.

Unlike other recent Korean revenge films that illustrate the futility of vengeance, “The Housemaid” supplies revenge as the solution to conflict. Unfortunately, that solution appears to be as shallow as the thinly-developed plot.

Information about “The Housemaid” can be found on ifcfilms.com