Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Nannies Come and Go

Here There Be Spoylers -- maybe. If you're planning to see either version of the movie I discuss here, you might want to wait until you've seen it before you read this post.

I hadn't quite intended to see Im Sang-soo's 2010 remake of The Housemaid, but then the university's new cinema facility scheduled a showing. I don't get to see many Korean films on the big screen, so I try to take the chances I get. So I rode my bike through this evening's snow flurries, and sat down in the theater to find out how the remake compared to the 1960 original.

Kim Ki-Young's The Housemaid was a hit at the box-office but didn't get much critical attention at first. Not much Korean cinema did in those days. Kim Ki-Young (1922-1998) was an independent filmmaker with his own production company, who made phantasmagorical, gynophobic thrillers. So far the only other film of his I've seen is the crazy, brilliant Iodo (1977), about a mysterious island of women, but I have a few others on DVD. (Iodo can be seen online at Youtube, in sections.)

The original Housemaid is a Fatal Attraction kind of story, of a man and his innocent family ensnared by a scheming, ruthless seductress. Allegedly it was based on a scandalous news story of the period. The man is a musician who teaches music to young women factory workers. Korea in those days was urbanizing rapidly, and many country kids moved to the city in search of work and excitement. The music teacher's wife is pregnant and their trendy Western-style house is still under construction, so one of his students moves out of her factory dormitory to become their maid. Before long she and the teacher are having an affair, and when the maid becomes pregnant she decides she wants to be in first place. When that fails, she plots revenge. What makes The Housemaid so memorable is Kim's expressionistic style -- it's not at all like other Korean films of the period; it's like Hitchcock, maybe, but looser; maybe Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate with a psycho factory girl instead of brainwashed Chicom assassins. Nothing I'd heard about it prepared me for how good it was when I finally saw it. You can actually see the 1960 version online for free, so give it a whirl.

What did Im Sang-soo do with this material? He changed it almost totally. Color instead of black-and-white, of course. Instead of a petit bourgeois music teacher with a son and a daughter, we have Goh Hoon, the scion of a very wealthy family, presumably of the chaebol or huge conglomerates, with one Wednesday-Addams-style daughter. The husband (Lee Jeong-jae) must have trained as a concert pianist before he went into the family business: he's a wiz at Beethoven. Instead of a half-finished frame house, we have a mansion with a housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, I mean Mrs. Cho. Instead of a naive country girl we have the thirty-something divorcee Lee Eun-yee (Jeon Do-yeon), who's been working in a restaurant in Seoul before Mrs. Cho taps her to be nanny for little Wednesday, I mean Nami, and her soon-to-be-born twin brothers.

Im flips the seduction around. Eun-yee is required to wear a saucy little maid's uniform with a miniskirt ("Don't let them see you wearing anything else," Mrs. Cho admonishes her), and the boss starts leering at her on first sight. Before long he's slipped into her room with a bottle of wine, and the affair begins. At some point she becomes pregnant, though it's not clear at first that the baby is Goh's. (You can get pregnant from fellatio -- fact!) Goh's mother-in-law soon learns about the goings-on, and intervenes, first by knocking Eun-yee off a ladder as she's cleaning a chandelier. Mrs. Goh, hugely pregnant, rises from reading The Second Sex in bed to drag a golf club upstairs to Eun-yee's room, but can't bring herself to dash her rival's brains out -- yet. The good-hearted Eun-yee, unlike Kim's housemaid, doesn't want anything except a baby of her own; but her upper-class captors won't let her off so easily. At last she decides she wants revenge, but even then she turns it inward on herself, rather than on her tormentors. Kim's sexual and class politics have been turned inside out and on their heads. Kim reportedly told an interviewer that he aimed his version at a female audience; Im's is a boy-culture art film aimed at the film festival circuit. Each is successful on his own terms, but I prefer Kim's.

Im's version is gorgeous, and he makes it clear that the husband, Goh, is the true object of desire at the apex of the sex triangle. I was going to post these two NSFW stills of Lee Jeong-jae here, but I think I'll just link to them instead. (Notice the symbolic wine bottle -- wine carries a lot of symbolic freight in Im's Housemaid, but here it's the bottle that signifies: is that a bottle of wine in your hand, or are you happy to see me?) Lee has always been beautiful, and he's improved as an actor over the years, but it's Jeon Do-yeon's performance that carries the film. The Housemaid even complies with the Liz Warren / Alison Bechdel Rule for women characters in movies: there are more than two women, and they talk to each other about something other than men. But The Housemaid is not a feminist film, a reminder that compliance with The Rule constitutes a bare minimum, not a certification of high feminist consciousness.

Compared to Kim's original, Im's doesn't have much power. Every symbol is clearly labeled, there is a sermon or two about the ruthlessness of the super-rich, and Jeon makes her character convincing and sympathetic; but in Kim's, the symbols are bigger and richer than their obvious meanings, and the film seems about to burst out of the confines even of Korean melodrama, which is saying something given the over-the-top qualities of Korean melodrama. Im's Housemaid is an art film, which means it distrusts melodrama; Kim's Housemaid shows the possibilities of melodrama as art.