The Housemaid (IFC Films, NR)

What really sells this film is style, and in that regard it is a worthy entry in what might be called the “brooding horror” genre perfected by Val Lewton.


Beautiful surfaces hide dark secrets in The Housemaid, a chilling film by Sang-soo Im that is a loose remake of Ki-young Kim’s 1960 film of the same name. The opening frames take us to a bustling city neighborhood of restaurants and shops. Above them a young woman hesitates before leaping to her death. This tragic event makes scarcely more impression on the busy crowd than does the demise of the man who flew too close to the sun in Breughel’s aptly titled “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” Some note it briefly, others not at all, and in any case they quickly get on with their own lives. By the time the Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon) passes by hours later the only sign of the young woman’s death is a chalk outline on the pavement. Who was she and why did she kill herself? The film never tells us but provides enough information that we can essentially answer the question for ourselves.

We don’t learn much about Eun-yi either, except that she is a beautiful young woman who is in need of a job. She accepts a position as a live-in maid to a wealthy family; there’s one child (Youn Yuh-jung) in the household already and the mother, Hae-ra (Seo Woo) is heavily pregnant with a second. The father, Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), is a successful businessman and outrageously handsome devil who feels entitled to take anything he wants from the world. Also living in the house are Hae-ra’s mother (Park Ji-young) and an older housekeeper, Mrs. Cho (Yun Yeo-jong).

This is the classic set-up for a woman-in-peril story: a young and innocent woman is impelled by financial circumstances to accept a position in an isolated setting (in this case a large mansion) where she will be exposed to a series of dangers. Those inside the mansion are protected by their wealth and status, while the indifferent world outside goes on about its business giving no more thought to the well-being of the housemaid than it did to the fate of the young woman who leapt to her death on a crowded city block.

The brilliance of The Housemaid lies not in its plotting; the perils of Eun-yi are fairly predictable, from Hoon collecting his droit de seigneur to the two older women making various attempts to get rid of her, but they are well-executed enough to give you the chills and the creeps in alternating sequence. What really sells this film is style, and in that regard it is a worthy entry in what might be called the “brooding horror” genre perfected by Val Lewton. Evil seems to lurk in every shadowy corner, and the director’s choice of a primarily brown palette imposes a layer of foreboding over even the most apparently innocent of scenes.

The Housemaid takes an almost visceral pleasure in exploring the trappings of wealth in a manner reminiscent of I Am Love but to a much more sinister end; the superficial beauty of the mansion and its inhabitants are but a mask for their underlying evil, which might more accurately be termed indifference to anyone other than themselves. A maid is an object of use for this family who when troublesome or no longer useful can be discarded like a worn-out towel or bought off as they might pay someone to cut the lawn. The film’s ending is positively chilling, underlining the class differences and resulting power differential that are the film’s real subject. Some people can get away with anything, and they do. | Sarah Boslaugh

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