Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jung-jae, Seo Woo, Park Ji-young, Youn Yuh-jung, Ahn Seo-Hyeon
Written by: Im Sang-soo, based on a screenplay by Kim Ki-young
Directed by: Im Sang-soo
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Korean, with English subtitles
Running Time: 106
Date: 05/13/2010
IMDB

The Housemaid (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Nanny Jam

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The last time I encountered the Korean filmmaker Im Sang-soo, it was with the muddled black comedy The President's Last Bang (2006). I never would have expected the maker of that to come up with something as good as the new The Housemaid, a remake of a Kim Ki-young's lurid 1960 Korean melodrama of the same name (The Housemaid). Im mostly keeps the outline of the plot and gives the tale a whole new spin.

The movie starts promisingly, with some shots of Korean street life, mixed with images of a young woman jumping from a high balcony, to her death. Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) works in a noodle shop nearby, and not long after, she quits and goes to work as the title housemaid for a wealthy family. Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) is the only male around; he's aloof and fit. He sniffs fine wine and swirls it around in his mouth before swallowing, and occasionally plays beautiful classical pieces on his piano.

His wife is the gorgeous, heavily pregnant Hae-ra (Seo Woo), obviously spoiled. Hae-ra's pristine, vindictive mother (Park Ji-young) is also in the picture. Eun-yi reports to the prim, stern Mrs. Cho (Youn Yuh-jung), who lets her guard down at night, drinking smoking, and complaining about the horrible family she has spent her life working for. Finally, there's the family's daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-Hyeon), an amazingly polite, good-hearted girl who takes to the bright, smiling Eun-yi right away.

It's not long before Hoon visits Eun-yi's room. This time he's shirtless, chugging wine out of the bottle. He seduces her, and she eagerly accepts. ("I love this smell," she blurts out.) Unfortunately, Eun-yi winds up pregnant. From there, it's a sinister power play as the family tries to make the situation go away and Eun-yi tries to decide whether or not she'd like to keep the baby, as well as whether to use it as leverage against the family.

Im depicts all this in a wonderfully visual way, using the huge, intricate, angular house as a weapon in his game. Everything from staircases, to columns to a strange green vase provide the right kind of compositions and lighting to illustrate the angry, desperate emotions roiling in this house. Yet, unlike in Kim's original, the faces remain calm and contemplative. There's not a bad performance here. Each actor beautifully balances cold surfaces and wormy undersides, but of course Jeon Do-yeon comes out the best. She has amazingly expressive eyes, capable of innocence, joy, or great pain. She can appear divinely beautiful in some scenes, and working-class ordinary in other scenes. She's partly sexy, and partly childlike.

What's amazing here is that Im's film is both sexier and more restrained that Kim's; both films are equally great, and neither steps on the other's toes. Im's version manages to delve into some twisted emotions without disturbing the film's gorgeous surface (though he does indulge in a bizarre nightmare sequence on the way out). It's a magnificent achievement, one that's alive and weird and touching at the same time.

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