4 stars out of 5
The Stars: Jeon Do-yeon (Secret Sunshine), Lee Jung-jae (Typhoon), Seo Woo
The Story: A woman named Eun-yi (Jeon) goes to work as a housemaid for a wealthy family. With her genuine love for children, she soon bonds with the family’s young daughter. She then unwittingly attracts the attention of the handsome head of the family, Hoon (Lee), whose wife (Seo) is expecting twins. Flirting smiles quickly lead to passionate trysts – with chilling consequences for all involved.
The Buzz: Jeon is a highly regarded performer who was named Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 for her unforgettable turn as a grief-stricken woman in Secret Sunshine. This film, written and directed by Im Sang-soo (The Old Garden), is a remake of the 1960 classic Korean film of the same name.
Gosford Park and The Remains of the Day delved into class divisions by contrasting the attitudes and preoccupations of the elite and the working class, within the microcosm of a privileged household. They also revealed much about the inner life of such places, about the quaint rhythms locked within.
There is also an entitled family along with subservient help staff within The Housemaid. This erotic thriller is, however, more concerned with how the ultra-rich can act with impunity and shocking callousness towards the subordinates living under the same roof. Beneath the veneer of manners and propriety, there is deep-rooted disdain and a propensity for remarkable cruelty.
The film plays out as a series of barriers – proxies for moral boundaries – being broken both by the rich employers and by Eun-yi. Jeon portrays the protagonist as a simple woman with child-like innocence, one who may possess a hidden dark side, in convincing and compelling fashion. From the start, one is never certain if she knows more than she lets on – hence a constant sense of foreboding.
Meanwhile, Hoon, his wife and his meddlesome mother-in-law, are somewhat caricatured rich bigots who, like Greek gods, have no qualms with manipulating the lives of those beneath them with little regard. Who needs to have a conscience when you’ve long been in the habit of using money to make problems go away?
Everything comes to a head in spectacular fashion after the affair is discovered, Eun-yi punished beyond humane bounds, and a calculated revenge is plotted. Jeon, as always, is the one to watch; here, though, she is ably aided by veteran Yun Yeo-jong, who is a crowd-pleaser as the severe elder housemaid with an ambiguous agenda.
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.