The Housemaid (Kim Ki-young, 1960)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Housemaid.

criterion logoKim Ki-Young’s The Housemaid is a true classic of South Korean cinema, a caustic, shocking indictment of consumerism, Westernization, and bourgeois values made in the middle years of the director’s career and establishing themes and styles that became the filmmaker’s trademark in the decades that followed.  When a young housemaid (Ahn Sung-ki) is brought into the family home of music teacher Mr. Kim (Kim Jin-kyu), she quickly seduces its patriarch and sets upon terrorizing the equally unscrupulous family.  Worthy of comparison to Hitchcock and Buñuel, The Housemaid is a stylish, claustrophobic, psychologically complex critique of South Korea’s modernization and as audacious a portrait of domestic dysfunction as committed to film.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored high-definition film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Introduction by Martin Scorsese, filmmaker and chairman of the World Cinema Foundation
  • Audio commentary by filmmaker Bong Joon-ho
  • Two or Three Things I Know About KIM Ki-young: Directors Talking about KIM Ki-Young, a 2006 documentary featuring interviews with Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and Kim Jee-woon on the director’s filmography and influence
  • Trailer gallery of Kim Ki-Young films
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring new essays by World Cinema Foundation artistic director Kent Jones and film critic and historian Jean-Michel Frodon

Without seeing The Housemaid, it would seem to be a straightforward domestic melodrama about a family torn apart by the brief infidelity of the household’s patriarch with a live-in housekeeper, a Fatal Attraction-ish morality play about male infidelity and the disproportionate and irrational rage of jilted womanhood.  And it is, but it’s also so very much more.  The film is about Mr. Kim, a music teacher whose sickly, pregnant, and over-worked wife convinces him to retain a live-in housekeeper to help her keep their new two-storey home and care for their 2 (soon to be 3) children.  The housekeeper seduces/blackmails Mr. Kim into sleeping with her, consequently getting her pregnant.  When a guilt-ridden and further blackmailed Mr. Kim eventually tells his wife of his actions and their consequences, she convinces the housemaid to compromise the pregnancy by throwing herself down the stairs.  The housemaid is thereafter driven even further over the edge and proceeds to wage a terror campaign on the family by tormenting, humiliating, and even murdering them (more or less).  At this point, The Housemaid offers no admirable characters (if there even were any to begin with).  Harshly demeaning behaviour, violent actions, and life-taking machinations are employed throughout the household and conclusion is obtained only through more deaths.

Kim Ki-young’s tale of material, emotional, and corporeal warfare in the context of middle class domesticity is, without qualification, bazonkers.  Only within the four corners of The Housemaid‘s frame are the decisions and motivations of its characters coherent, yet it does manage to be consistent in its excessive venom.  Jake’s analogy over at Not Just Movies, comparing Kim Ki-young as the id-minded response to Yasujiro Ozu’s contemplative superego, is apt in part because the Korean filmmaker does not so much blame his feminine antagonist for the film’s middle class upheaval as he does the bourgeois context itself.  When Mr. Kim’s wife laments near the film’s end that all their pain and loss could have been avoided if only she didn’t want their new house, it’s not just melodramatic penance – she’s actually on to something.  New home construction and urban sprawl are frequently employed in Korean cinema to express the pressures of modernization, capitalism, and Westernization.  It is the vicious circle of middle class aspirations that cannot be afforded (a new home, a TV, a piano) that forces Mr. Kim’s wife to be exhausted and in need of domestic help.  And it is the presence of working, income-producing women around the music teacher that causes him to lose control of himself and his family.

Women aren’t depicted well in The Housemaid, there’s no way around it, but Mr. Kim is no tragic hero.  He is clearly the author of his own misfortune and an engine for it being perpetuated.  One of the more fascinating, although less well attended to aspects of the film is the more than 20 minutes that passes before the titular housemaid is ever introduced in the film.  In that space, the social and familial issues that will later destroy the household are hinted at as already present beneath the veneer of a stable nuclear family.  The music teacher is intransigent and unsympathetic, particularly with his students and his young son.  His tweenage daughter (on crutches), Ae-soon, manhandles her brother and manipulates her father with crocodile tears.  The boy, Chang-soon, fights and sneaks for his share, plus a little more.  The wife makes herself a martyr in service of a self-fulfilling prophecy – struggling to sew piecework to pay for the home she can’t keep, needing the paid help she must work harder to afford.  The desire for material wealth connects with the rise of working women, and Mr. Kim, unsure of his role in this new South Korea, cannot prevent his undoing by the demanding, ambitious, and flat-out disturbed women now around him.

Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid is often compared fairly to the work of Alfred Hitchcock.  Domestic tension is recognizable to the original master of suspense – consider Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943).  The Housemaid is replete with the technical and stylistic flourishes associated with Hitch.  The camera prowls around the family’s home, frequently turning to glance into a doorway or around a corner, only to find a set of watching eyes.  In a recurring move, the camera tracks from outside of the home’s second floor, observing Mr. Kim’s piano room, sliding across the hall and stairwell to the housemaid’s room, and back again, providing a glimpse as well of the balconies and, sometimes, of the housemaid hiding/spying from outside.  The claustrophobic interior space of The Housemaid is emphasized by the exterior view, presented as an inescapable space akin to the daughter’s caged pet squirrel, left with nothing to do but perpetually run in its wheel.  Mr. Kim speaks of the squirrel’s efforts with admiration, but his children recognize it for the sad and manic action it truly is.  The film is at its most Hitchockian when the stairway between the ground floor and upper storey is shot through a glass of possibly poisoned water, distorting the image in an uneasy manner.  And if the Grand Guignol conclusion of The Housemaid seems too much, it gloriously jumps the shark with an absurdist conclusion worthy of Michael Haneke.  (Both directors share a massive affinity for the psychoanalytic.)

The Housemaid is not a particularly out-of-the-box choice for the Criterion Collection.  Its restoration by the World Cinema Foundation in 2008 and its endorsement by Martin Scorsese has long made it a rumoured titled for inclusion, but we’re now 5 years out and it still lacks a release on North American hard media.  Despite the rise of the Korean New Wave and an increasing interest in nation’s very deep back catalogue of films,South Korea’s sole representation in the Collection is Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, 2008).  There is a wealth of great Korean cinema to be championed by Criterion and there is no better place to start than Kim Ki-young’s classic thriller.

Glenn Barr FuegoWho better for a Criterion cover commission that Detroit-based artist Glenn BarrThe Housemaid intersects with so much of Barr’s thematic and stylistic content that the marriage seems ready-made.  Much of Barr’s work, such as Fuego (right), evokes late ’50s/early ’60s cool with a pop art panache.  These works contain a modernist ambition akin to the consumerist aims of The Housemaid‘s aggressively middle class family, but Barr’s art also contains with in it a fetid, sleazy aspect.  A rotten olive in the martini, Barr’s paintings, like Heart AflameIn the DenFuego, and Evening, portray not just the imagery of wealth (jewelry, furs, gowns, furniture), but the hard price paid for them (possessive men, predatory women, calcified emotions, imprisoning relationships).  Barr’s world of romantic glamour and domestic affluence are dog eat dog and he could easily interpolate The Housemaid‘s murderous bourgeois values to his colourful brand of retro chic.

Credits: Bong Joon-ho’s commentary and the Kim Ki-young documentary are both special features on the Region 2 and 3 DVDs of The Housemaid.  Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones are frequent Criterion contributors and their association with the World Cinema Foundation responsible for the film’s preservation make them ideally suited to this title.  Jean Michel-Frodon, an editor-in-chief of Cahiers du cinéma, wrote The Housemaid‘s infobox for Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

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