The Housemaid (1960) and a Living Hell

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The opening credits are more self-assured and breezy than I was expecting as the brass sounds off against a pair of kids playing cat’s cradle in the family living. Even with the rain outside, it somehow feels like a fitting depiction of postwar modernity in the 1960s. Films like Ohayo and When a Woman Ascends The Stairs capture a similar cross-section of life.

But this is simply the initial feel — the artistic flourishes being implemented. The most obvious element is the opening conceit between a husband and wife. He reads in the newspaper how a man had an affair with his maid. His wife scoffs at the news. Disgusted that such filth would desecrate the home she’s worked so hard to cultivate. Instantly we have the inkling of tension.

By day Dong-sik Kim is a music teacher. It feels like an all-girls dormitory, although it is actually a factory. He’s fairly straight-laced in his work, but it doesn’t stop the girls from having crushes on him. One in particular. It’s another seed of drama the film sows early on. Because if we learn nothing else, The Housemaid‘s forte is draining the reservoirs of theatricality for all they are worth.

If it’s not already apparent, the film has unabashed tinges of melodrama end to end. I know next to nothing about modern K dramas — apart from their reputation — but could they perchance have roots in films like these? Because we have brazen jumps in narrative and scenes where the story changes almost instantaneously from a sudden tragedy or a paradigmatic shift of some sort.

Of course, the vivacious Cho can’t have the composer, but she does something else instead. She starts getting lessons from him and then another idea comes into her head. You see, the family needs a new maid. It’s almost nonchalant how she offers her roommate the position because she knows the girl will be accepted almost without question. Here the film really begins as a kind of domestic thriller.

It’s all because of this peculiar girl who offers none of the warmth or instant charisma of Cho. She looks rather forlorn and dowdy, hardly the domestic type nor personable. Yet sure enough, she’s enlisted as the newest occupant of the Kim’s impressive two-story abode.

Much like some of Hitchcock’s great achievements (ie. Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Pyscho) or even Bong’s recent success Parasite (paying a great homage to the Housemaid), the domestic space becomes such a lethal vessel for dramatic tension.

If used effectively, there’s an inherent claustrophobia, constriction, and isolation such spaces can bring out. And the directors are able to make it a character unto itself, ripe with all sorts of thematic ideas and visual cues to act as an extension of their story.

Instead of a luminescent glass of milk, it is rat poison stuck away in a cupboard proving a deadly fulcrum within the movie. Packed in that tiny canister of household goods is so much threat and menace.

Director Kim ki-young augments his already contentious dynamics through sheer visual motifs. The stairwells become the most prominent piece of the home — a symbol of wealth — certainly but also social mobility and the seesawing power struggle.

Meanwhile, the sliding doors keep the space tight and confined such that you begin to expect the conflict and then feel it in turn. What’s being developed before us is a kind of cinematic language to go with the raging plonking on the piano taken up by several characters, all disposed to releasing their emotions on the keys. The music alone packs enough rage to pump up the blood pressure.

It succeeds in lending a continual fire to this overwhelming even crippling intensity. It reaches the point of being taxing. We are privy to the duplicity of illicit love that feels like two sides of the same coin. Cho’s puppy-like love for the teacher is forbidden but still youthful and a touch of naive.

However, the other is pernicious in a totally destructive manner as is made plainly evident. One day the wife must go off, leaving her husband with the maid in the house. What’s been alluded to the entire movie finally comes into being. She throws herself at him and he does very little to resist. In the heat of the moment, he’s not about to put up a fight. It’s the repercussions that will come to destroy him and cripple his family.

One must acknowledge all of their indiscretions would come to nothing if not for the fact his new “mistress” is now pregnant with his son even as his wife is about to have his child as well. It plays as a salacious piece of scandal and the maid can willfully wave it around as her bargaining chip — a mode in which to blackmail them.

Because she’s running scared even as she jealousy hangs onto the man who wants nothing more than to cast her off. Now he feels shackled by her. In some harrowing way, the film makes it apparent he is all but powerless to stop her as she ruthlessly scraps for herself. It’s the urban nightmare: held hostage in their own middle-class lifestyle with their kids, their TV, and new home, and it all means next to nothing. It becomes this futile trap they’re perpetually stuck in.

The commentary is so closely tied to the persistent intrigue and there’s the key — how this pursuit of upward mobility, of social status in a vertical society, winds up being their very downfall. They are strangled and then undone by the very tokens of wealth they have craved their entire lives. First, it begins with wifely ambitions and then the unseated desires of her husband compounding the situation.

However, there would be no picture without the self-seeking, crazed intentions of the maid. In her own right, she rivals Ellen Harland (Gene Tierney’s character) in Leave Her to Heaven. She’s so possessive, obsessive in her love, it threatens to tear up every relationship in its wake. There is no peace while she’s alive and her unwavering envy only sows chaos before jumping off the deep end entirely.

Because she haunts them — staring at the children through the sliding glass doors, rain pouring down, even as she harries their dejected father to the point of helplessness.

I mentioned the blackmail — the threat of being social pariahs — as being a kind of force holding them where they are. In this manner, one cannot help but think at Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel where some unnamed force keeps a group of aristocrats trapped in a room.

In the Housemaid the narrative devolves into its own form of living hell. You have to see it in order to understand how insidious it really feels. Because this prison (or noose) is not of a supernatural variety — it is very much implemented by the social structure on hand. And ultimately, no stabilizing cop-out ending can neutralize the frankness behind the nightmare.

One only needs to recall the wife’s desperate assertion to her husband. “My corpse may be silent, but my will won’t be!” In the end, Kim ki-young delivers a shocking portrait boldly mechanizing the multifaceted underpinnings of melodrama as all things romance, thriller, and satire. To this day, it remains an unflinching touchstone of Korean cinema at a time when the world was rapidly changing and still coming to terms with its gains.

4/5 Stars

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