Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

하녀 (The Housemaid)

Directed by Kim Ki-young
South Korea

“Look at this. A man in Gimcheon committed adultery with his maid.”

Kim Ki-young's film 하녀, or The Housemaid, is about a middle-class family trying to establish a place for themselves in the world. It is the perfect nuclear family: a father, mother, son, and daughter. They have the ideal life, or at least they are getting close to it. And then, suddenly, it is all taken from them. Unlike most thrillers where the central characters are exposed to evil by accident or chance, The Housemaid is unique in that the characters invite their own destruction into their house. Everything that happens to them can be traced back to their own selfish desires and desperation to maintain their status in society. It is a frightfully complex movie. And yet, as the characters explain at the beginning and ending, it could happen to anybody...

The family's patriarch is Tong-sik, a music teacher, who alternates between leading choir practices at work and private piano lessons at home. The mother spends her time working at a sewing machine where she earns money for them to buy nice, expensive things: a television set, a piano, and other things that good middle class families should have. The daughter is crippled and has to walk around wearing arm braces. Unfortunately, she has to deal with the constant harassment directed to her by her younger brother, a cheeky little whelp who has no problem in calling her a cripple and mocking her when she can't make it up the staircase. They all live in a beautiful western two-story house in a nice neighborhood. It is obvious that they were not born into the middle class but had to work their way up to it. It is also obvious, perhaps even more so, that they want to improve their lot in life even more. They can be frightfully blunt, even borderline cruel, in their quest for upward mobility.

Take, for example, their crippled daughter. The perfect daughter would not have such a disability. So, they want her to get better. In one particularly harsh scene, Tong-sik arrives home with a new pet squirrel. It is a present for his daughter. He holds it up to her and casually explains how when a squirrel is locked up inside a cage, it exercises to keep its legs strong. The girl stares blankly at the cage. With an empty look on her face, she replies, “You want me to exercise too, right?” Then, quietly weeping, she turns around and hobbles up the impossible stairs. This brings up another interesting point: why would the family buy a two-story house when they have a crippled daughter? In fact, why would they have such a huge house when there are only four of them? My guess is that they buy things that they think they want, not necessarily the things that they need.

One night, the mother breaks down from being overworked. So Tong-sik asks one of his students to find him a housemaid. When she arrives, it is clear that things are not going to be the same for the family. With girlish good looks, pigtails, and an extremely tight sweater, she quickly becomes the wife's sexual rival. In addition, she acts in a very disconcerting manner. She catches and kills a rat in the kitchen with her bare hands. She has an unnerving stare that she uses to examine the house and its occupants. The children are quick to distrust her. But Tong-sik keeps her employed. Unfortunately, forces are already in motion that will lead to her seducing him.

Earlier in the film, one of his students gave him a love letter. He quickly reports it to her boss at her factory. It becomes apparent that Tong-sik did so because he was trying to avoid scandal which would inevitably lead to him losing his job. Unfortunately, the student did not take it well. She kills herself in grief. Horrified, he rushes to her funeral where her mother attacks him. When he returns home, he is beset upon by yet another student who loves him. She threatens to go to the police and say that he raped her if he doesn't sleep with her. He shoves her away. It is at this moment, when he is at his weakest when the maid seduces him.

Things only continue to get worse from there as the maid discovers that she is pregnant. Now she poses a threat to the social standing of the family. So the mother takes drastic steps to keep her family intact. In one of the film's most chilling scenes, she confronts the maid. We don't hear much of what she says, but we can only expect the worst. She leaves the maid standing at the top of the staircase and goes down to meet her husband. She assures him that everything will be taken care of.

“What happened?”
“Everything will be taken care of soon.”
“We can't let our precious lives be destroyed now.”

We see them walk away from the stairs where the maid is standing at the top. They walk behind a door. There is a crash and a horrible scream. They go back in where they find the maid sprawled on the floor. He carries her back upstairs where the maid desperately grabs him.

“Don't go. Your child is dead. I did as your wife told me. I'll die too. I'll die!”

We then cut to a group of doctors walking down the stairs. In a moment it becomes clear: she has had an emergency abortion. Now everything starts to unwind. The maid threatens to go to the police and say that they murdered her child. Desperate to avoid scandal, the family allows her to control them with an iron fist. She walks into Tong-sik's bedroom at night and demands that he sleep with her. His wife is powerless to stop her. She cruelly kills their son with rat poison. She thinks that it's only fair. After all, they killed her son, so she had the right to kill their's. Once again, the couple refuses to go to the police. Things only keep escalating out of control until she convinces Tong-sik that they should commit suicide together...

The Housemaid is sinister in its implications of middle class psychology. There were many times when the family could have gone to the police to get help, but they choose not to in order to avoid scandal. One would think that after their own son was murdered that it would be the final straw, but they continue to bow to the maid's will. They adore their lifestyle with their big two-story house. In fact, the house itself becomes an important symbol. Normal families wouldn't need a two-story house. So, the second story represents the luxury that the family desperately clings to. Observe what goes on in the different floors. The emergency abortion takes place upstairs where the maid's room is. Later in the film, the mother also gives birth to a son. Her delivery is downstairs where their bedroom is. The piano room is upstairs. Later in the film, it becomes a source of psychological torture as the maid is heard banging on it all throughout the day (and late at night) as the family unravels. It is upstairs that the maid poisons the son. We see him die as he plummets down the stairs.

If the second story represents their unnecessary lifestyle, then the staircase becomes a constant reminder of their decision to bend to the maid's will. So many important things happen on the staircase: the maid throws herself down them to induce a miscarriage, the boy falls down them to his death, and the girl is forced by her parents to walk them in order to strengthen her legs. They become a tool through which the family destroys themselves.

The film itself is a masterpiece of atmosphere, composition, and pacing. It shares the same sense of dread as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) yet moves along at the same pace as The Honeymoon Killers (1970). As the story evolves, the house seems to undergo a metamorphosis from a spacious home into a claustrophobic dungeon. Not only is The Housemaid a disturbing film, it is also an incredibly brave one. At a time when Korean cinema was chained to realism, director Kim Ki-young's was willing to delve into themes such as psycho-sexual drama and the post-war middle class values that drive Tong-sik's family towards destruction. While it was a hit at the box office, the film was crucified by Korea's critics. Now, over forty years later, it is recognized as one of the three greatest Korean films of all time. Hopefully one day it will gain its proper place as one of the greatest thrillers that mankind has ever produced.

Editor's Note: Many thanks for the World Cinema Foundation for restoring this priceless work of art. According to the website:

Hanyo (The Housemaid) has been restored digitally by the Korean Film Archive (KOFA) with the support of the World Cinema Foundation. The original negative of the film was found in 1982 with two missing reels, 5 and 8. In 1990 an original release print with handwritten English subtitles was found and used to complete the copy. Unfortunately, this copy was highly damaged, and the English subtitles occupied almost half of the frame area. So far the restoration process has included flicker and grain reduction, scratch and dust removal, color grading, etc. and has turned out to be very complex. The final removal of the subtitles is expected by the end of the year.

This film can be seen free of charge at http://www.theauteurs.com/films/2039



  1. Another great review--and thanks for including the info at the end regarding where and how you were able to watch the film. Always good to know.

  2. Once again, you're welcome. If a film is part of the public domain, then I will always try to provide a link to it. If it isn't, then I won't....gotta protect my...sources...

  3. Holy cow! This film was scary as heck and it was crazy at the same time. I love it! Thanks so much for inspiring me to watch it, which I did on Hulu. :) Yeah! Now, I'm scared of rat poison and tap water. :(

    1. I know, right? Thankfully, the film is now being released on the Criterion Collection! Now EVERYONE can be afraid of rat poison and tap water!

  4. Loved the film. Loved your review. The only real distressing aspect of the film for me was the painfully loud musical soundtrack. I don't like to stereotype, but I wonder if that's a Korean thing as I have found most Korean television dramas to be the same way. Anyhow, thanks for the review. I enjoyed it.

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