December 5, 2010

The Housemaid (Ki-young Kim, 1960; Sang-soo Im, 2010)

The Housemaid (Ki-young Kim, 1960) is one of the oldest films known to have survived South Korea’s evolution from Third-World country to G20 powerhouse.  The print shown at Fantasia this year was restored by Martin Scorsese’s World film restoration foundation in tandem with the South Korean government and follows The Housemaid (Sang-soo Im, 2010) remake’s stellar performance this year at the South Korean box office.

In the film, a high school music teacher has an affair with one of her students, after hiring her in his home as a housemaid. I’m surprised by two things at the screening. First, the premise is very close to Haitian film Barikad (Richard Senecal, 2002) where a young maid falls in love with her employer’s son, to the disgust of his entire middle-class family. Although, it has to be said, Barikad uses a more Romeo-and-Juliet approach while The Housemaid follows the Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987) route into the thriller genre, they both show a significant interest in representing their class status without necessarily reflecting on class dynamics. Like in Fatal Attraction, the victim is soon the victimizer, bargaining (some would say blackmailing) her silence for power within her teacher’s household, a coup d’état of sorts. The teacher is condemned into paying for his unique mistake by being coerced into sharing his bed with the young girl, his wife having been relegated to the downstairs sowing room. Aesthetically, The Household recalls Alfred Hitchcock and Henri-Georges Clouzot, with its ominous stairs and sheltered private school, its deliberate camera movement and stark black-and-white cinematography, although its uses of the genre ‘s scare tactics, like the dark musical score, are very derivative.

Second, although The Housemaid borrows heavily from thrillers, it quickly sinks into unrealistic melodrama, with one horrible event occurring after the other, culminating in the ‘after-school special’-like, almost laughable address from the principal actor to the audience to stay away from bad morals. It’s interesting that unsophisticated national cinemas tend towards melodrama as they attempt to find their own direction. Haitian cinema has been stuck in a creation cycle of melodramatic cautionary tales in the last twenty years which infiltrates every genre, from horror (Natalie: Samuel Vincent, 2006) to drama (VIP, le film: Réginald Lubin, 2004). There are further examples in Quebec cinema, looking at the obvious emotional manipulation of La petite Aurore, l’enfant martyre (Jean-Yves Bigras, 1952) and Séraphin, un homme et son péché (Paul Gury, 1950). In comparison, the brutal but heartfelt truth of Mourir à tue-tête (Anne-Claire Poirier, 1979) almost thirty years later showed that a grave subject matter could be treated with honesty and illicit outrage without succumbing to gravitas.

However, The Housemaid is interesting because of its failings, serving as a cultural marker to South Korea’s social history. Although restored, several parts were missing from the final print I saw, leaving me with a renewed perception of the importance of film preservation.