film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Housemaid (1960)

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Roommate Russ was having a videocall in another room when I was watching this. When the film finished, my overwhelmed cry of “Holy rat-fork” was so loud it interrupted his call. (Also…er, “holy rat-fork” were not my exact words.)

I am afraid this was not a cry of admiration. It wasn’t terrible, mind you – there are some good performances and some fine camerawork, and the script ratchets up the tension in the developing plot at a fine and relentless pace. It also makes some comments about class differences that reminded me of Parasite (and it does not surprise me to learn that Bong Joon Ho was inspired by this film, or perhaps by its 2010 remake, when writing his own work). However, it’s not so much about class as it is a twisted love-triangle story, heavy on the melodrama, and director Kim Ki-Young throws in a coda at the end that cancels out nearly all of the film preceding it.

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Our main characters in this instance are the Kim family – father Dong-Sik (Kim Jin-kyu) is a musician and composer who has a “day job” giving music lessons at a nearby factory, while his wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) warks at home as a seamstress to help pay for their fancy new house and for medical bills for daughter Ae-soon (Lee Yoo-ri) and the various school expenses for son Chang-soon (Ahn Sung-ki). But Mrs. Kim is also pregnant, and the house is a little too big for her to manage in her condition, so Mr. Kim hires a live-in maid, Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim).

But Myung-sook….well, to put it kindly, she might have some issues with impulse control – she picks on the kids by “joking” that the food she makes for the family has rat poison in it, she regularly pokes around everyone’s things, and she is attracted to Mr. Kim. A lot. …. A lot. And one night, after a steady campaign of seduction, Mr. Kim gives into her during a weak moment – and before long, Myung-sook is pregnant as well. But when the family tries to dismiss her, Myung-sook plays her trump card – she knows that another girl at the factory killed herself because of an unrequited crush on Mr. Kim, and the staff already has their eye on him. And if she were to go public about their affair, well, surely it would cost his job…Mrs. Kim decides that she can fight dirty as well, and talks Myung-sook into inducing a miscarriage by throwing herself down the stairs. But after the deed is done, Myung-sook doubles down on her erotomania and her blackmail threats, attacking the kids and even the family pets, and trapping the Kims in a domestic nightmare from which there is very little chance of any kind of escape.

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…Now, if that was all that would already be bat-crap crazy enough, but the performances are credible enough that I would cheerfully have gone along with it. Lee Eun-shim plays Myung-sook as an uncomplicated sort at first – the person referring her to the Kims describes her as “not very smart, but a hard worker”. On her first day at the Kims she raises eyebrows by chainsmoking (and stealing Mr. Kim’s cigarettes to do so) and by catching a rat with her bare hands and smacking it with her shoe. The crazy doesn’t come in until later, with her regularly popping up in doorways to glare menacingly at the kids or at Mrs. Kim, or to leer seductively at Mr. Kim. For his part, Mr. Kim is a mercurial sort who swings between being a loving father and a stern disciplinarian towards his kids (although he only lectures them, there’s no abuse here). One minute he is also gushing over his wife, and the other he is lecturing her about the bills. So it makes sense that his attitude towards Myung-sook could be carnal one moment and violently repulsed the next.

The staging of the “seduction scenes” also manages to stay squarely safe-for-work visually – we only see Myung-sook bare her shoulders instead of any other more salacious body part, and all we see of the “sex” is her slithering her hands around Mr. Kim’s clothed back in one scene, or a closeup of her feet twining around his as he sits in a chair in another. It’s a dodge, but somehow still manages to feel seductive.

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But the script also piles one or two other little details on that pushed things just over the line for me to the point I was rolling my eyes, like the fact that there’s yet another factory girl who has a crush on Mr. Kim and also tries to seduce him. Or the fact that three people all have the same kind of accident in the house, for wholly different reasons. Or how daughter Ae-soon is partially disabled, just enough to make her just slow enough so that she can’t escape one of Myung-soon’s attacks in time…or the very ending, which I will not spoil with details – I will only say that there’s a twist in the final scene which suggests that everything in the preceding movie might not have actually happened anyway. I don’t dislike melodrama – but even with melodrama there’s a point at which things are just too baroque for me to buy, and this film stepped just over that line. But then it made things worse by jumping back with a cheeky grin and a “never mind!” and I felt cheated.

Holy rat-fork indeed.

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