South Korean director Im Sang-soo doesn’t lack chutzpah. While it’s almost unknown in the U.S., Kim Ki-young’s 1960 The Housemaid is widely regarded as one of the best Korean films ever made. (It’s now available for free, legal streaming on-line at mubi.com.) Im’s project of remaking it is comparable to a Quentin Tarantino reboot of Casablanca or Citizen Kane. Unfortunately, he completely botches the job, missing the subversive potential in the outrageously melodramatic material, which French critic Jean-Michel Frodon has likened to Luis Buñuel. The title character in Kim’s film was crafty and clever, but Im’s housemaid is dim and pliant. Even one of Lars von Trier’s heroines might want to have a word with her about her doormat tendencies.
Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn) takes a job as a maid with the wealthy Goh family, although they already employ a middle-aged woman, Byung-sik (Yun Yeo-jong), as a servant. The family consists of Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), the pregnant Hae-ra (Seo Woo) and young daughter Nami. Soon, Hoon becomes attracted to Eun-yi and seduces her. Their sex leads to her pregnancy, creating a crisis in the family.
While The Housemaid contains a few sex scenes, Im’s pornographic impulses are directed away from conventional carnality. The Goh family throws away more food than most families eat in a week, all of it looking delicious. Their house looks like an Architectural Digest layout. The cast is attractive, and the cinematography slick and glossy. The rich are awful, the film implies, but this awfulness seems to make them sexier than you and me.
The Housemaid portrays upper-class Korea as a matriarchy of sorts, but one as far from being a feminist hotspot as the world of George Cukor’s The Women. Adultery and backstabbing occupy more of the hired help’s time than cooking and cleaning. Men are only useful as walking ATMs and sperm donors. When Eun-yi gets pregnant, Hoon is the last to know. While the film contains several fully developed female characters, Hoon remains even more enigmatic than Eun-yi. Unfortunately, the film seems to share the Goh family’s contempt for her.
If there’s any character in the film with whom the audience can safely identify, it’s Byung-sik. She’s a far more compelling housemaid than Eun-yi. One gets the sad impression that Im didn’t make a film centering around her largely because she wouldn’t serve as a conventionally attractive sex object to get the plot rolling. All the same, she knows how to get out of the deadly world of the Goh family in one piece. Eun-yi doesn’t cut her clitoris off, thankfully, but she’s just as doomed as Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character in Antichrist. To a lesser degree, Im shares von Trier’s inability to imagine a constructive female rebellion, rather than a self-destructive one.
Some critics have celebrated Im’s film as a rebirth of melodrama, but his tone is far too cool and calculating for that. Kim’s masterpiece manages to go off the rails, in an extremely entertaining way, but Im hedges his bets far too often. The best consequence of this remake’s American release might be a Region 1 DVD of the original film.