Friday, February 4, 2011

The Housemaid (Hanyo)
Doomed Spirits And Domesticity?  A Scarlet F Is For...

A scene from "The Housemaid", starring Do-yeon Jeon (left) in the title role as Eun-yi, in the drama directed by Sang-soo Im. 
IFC Films

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Friday, February 4, 2011

Enter a wacked-out, near bloodless mansion.  Work there.  Clean your employer's underwear.  And resist your boss as he or she tries to pull your own underwear down (preceded by a glass of delicious red wine.)  "The Housemaid (Hanyo)", directed by Sang-soo Im, isn't quite as simplistic or as surface as that, but this giddy, tantalizing artsy-horror movie from South Korea entertains these situations.  Ornate, pulsing with tension and eroticism, the film is based on its chilly, forerunning 1960 namesake directed by Ki-young Kim.

Like the original, the new film, which expanded its release today in the U.S., is a study of class and hierarchy.  The film behaves counter to the way its materially-confectioned players do: pristine, orderly and rigid.  At the film's heart: a Cinderella-type fairy tale gone wrong.  "The Housemaid" opens powerfully.  Later, there's an undefined presence in the mansion.  We surmise that the early event relates to the inhabitants of the creepy palace of dysfunction. 

A housemaid, Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon, in last year's "Secret Sunshine") is hired to clean, cook and look after an opulent and obstinate family headed by Hoon (Jung-Jae Lee).  Eun-yi gets pulled into the personal affairs of her employers.  Does she want what they have?  She doesn't covet or crave, but she doesn't resist when opportunity knocks on her door, either.  None of those in the house appear to be happy people, and the film's claustrophobic trappings highlight this.  Rarely does "The Housemaid" venture outside the splendored mansion's walls.

Stylish, spare and disciplined, the film's tonal shifts are sudden yet lurk in the background.  Overhead points of view suggest a hovering, watchful spirit.  Much of the film is punctuated by efficient shot-making, employing some of the Dardenne brothers ("The Son") style of close-ups of the back of the head, throwing you into apprehension of what is to come.  The director utilizes politeness, sometimes keeping a slight distance from the sheltered individuals.  When the camera encroaches it does so with close-ups of icy, harsh figures.  "The Housemaid" takes its bottled-up disdain for the staid proceedings and frostiness it displays and unleashes it through its foremost figure.

Do-yeon Jeon as Eun-yi, in "The Housemaid", directed by Sang-soo Im.  IFC Films

"The Housemaid" flaunts its graceful qualities, qualities making its drama both disquieting and devastating.  It mixes its art-house decor with discreet, subtle strains of horror, rooting us to a story about vacant, unredeemable cold hearts.  Hoon, a businessman plays piano, listens to Madame Butterfly and tires of meaningless bouts of sex with his pregnant wife, who has twins on the way.  A rigorous, even defiant pretense pervades the home.  There's an unsurprising boredom and lack of animation in the people who live a robustly stable economic life. 

Genre-wise "The Housemaid" sets up great opportunities to capitalize on films like "Rosemary's Baby", "The Omen" and others, hewing mostly to Mr. Polanski's end of the spectrum with the psychological torment and twists that make it more impressive.

Though Eun-yi is painfully naive, her destination feels engineered to achieve its most powerful moment, and nothing more.  Mr. Sang-soo reaches for symbolism and metaphor to resolve his twisty, tense story but what has preceded in Eun-yi is a largely modest, if not empty, shell of a character.  The other players in Mr. Sang-soo's drama are empty-hearted but have fuller definitions as characters.  We know their designs and desires.  Until the halfway mark we gain little understanding of Eun-yi's aspirations.  She exists as an ornamental pleasure, a tablet onto which others project their flaws, insecurities and perversions. 

The film surveys its sexual politics well, presenting generations of women repressed by men, but whom orchestrate their own sins against their fellow sisterhood.  The film's overtures about domesticity and its perks or pains are expressed in themes of a Madonna/whore/ice queen complex that are felt more than explicitly revealed.  We feel the tension of these personalities and themes clashing.  They are symbolized in one superbly executed shot in the film. 

"The Housemaid" is adept at keeping you off balance.  Some things you surmise.  Others you don't.  Its carefully crafted atmosphere builds discomfort, suspense and sustained dread.  The film works, even if some of its scenarios don't.  The oft-stereotyped anti-social rich adults displayed here have the pulse of gold dust but their only child Nami (Seo-Hyeon Ahn) has the precociousness we've come to expect at the movies.  She may be the sole bright hope the family (and this film) has.  You wonder whether Nami can survive this vacant, conniving group of adults. 

"The Housemaid" is an enduring, haunting pleasure.  Its temperature is chilly despite its moderate sexual heat, but always engaging.  The director has his last laughs with a campy, satirical finale, but not before hellish anger ensues.  Scorn indeed.

With: Seo Woo, Yeo-Jeong Yoon, Ji-Young Park.

"The Housemaid" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.  The film contains violence, disturbing scenes and strong sexual content.  The film is in the Korean language with English subtitles.  The film's running time is one hour and 47 minutes.

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