Last year was an interesting one for Korean movies titled The Housemaid, as not only did Im Sang-soo release his, but it was also the fiftieth anniversary of the Kim Ki-young original, and if you went to a festival during the year, you might get either one. As I may have mentioned a few times, it's an interesting sort of remake, in that only the very basic framework seems to have been retained - a new maid comes to work for a family, winds up in the father's bed, and the balance of power shifts in the household when she gets pregnant.
Aside from that, though, it's a completely different story. Eun-yi comes to work for an ultra-rich family, as opposed to one just lifting itself into the middle class, and the employer is the predator in this situation (although Eun-yi certainly doesn't fight it). When I saw the original back in December, I spent a little time talking about it as an indictment of consumer culture; I wouldn't say that the new version inverts that idea, but it does look at it from another angle. In 1960, Kim Ki-young was playing with the proverb that the things you purchase end up owning you; Im Sang-soo goes to the other end of the economy, where the people and corporations at the very top can act with impunity.
It's somewhat familiar territory for Director Im, who also made the excellent The President's Last Bang, a black comedy about the assassination of President Park Chun-hee. That was another film about rot and privilege at the top, but he doesn't treat the subject quite so lightly here. Here, the source of the power is vague - the bodyguards Goh Hoon travel with initially made me think crime, but it works for the merely wealthy, as well. In both cases, the power is entrenched - in The Housemaid, so much so that there's not even talk of who built the financial empire that lets Hoon live so well. He is, as far as the people around him care to consider it, a prince; his family has always been rich and powerful, using people and then papering over it with money, and the next generation will be the same way. It's cynical - even the people in both films who do grow a conscience of sorts may feel there's no way to stop the cycle - but in that cynicism, Im occasionally finds something blackly humorous or personally tragic.
... Anyway, this film is on the one-week program at the Kendall, although I suspect it may hang around another week; there's just one new film scheduled to open there this coming Friday and the shorts may be what leaves instead. Still, it's well worth a look; I think I like it a bit more than the original.
Hanyo (The Housemaid, 2011)
* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)
The original version of The Housemaid is widely considered a classic of Korean cinema, the sort of thing one doesn't remake lightly. For that film's fiftieth anniversary, though, that's what Im Sang-soo did, although it's the sort of remake where all the characters' names are changed, the relationships are reversed, and only the very basics remain. It's an almost completely different movie, but just as good, if not better.
There may not be any connection between the girl standing on the edge of a building in Soeul and there being an opening for a housemaid/nanny in the Goh household, but does it matter? They're in the market, and they hire Lee Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon), who is attractive and capable and doesn't realize just how far in over her head she is about to get. Her primary charge, young Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon), is a privileged little girl. The mother, Hae-ra (Woo Seo), is pregnant with twins. The father, Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), works long hours and is flanked by bodyguards when he returns home. The head maid, Cho Byung-sik (Yun Yeo-jong), has been with the family for decades, knows everything that happens in the house, and reports back to Hae-ra's mother Mi-hee (Park Ji-young). When Hoon makes his way down to Eun-yi's room at the vacation home, an affair begins that will lead to not just cracks but radiating fractures in the household.
Is Eun-yi blameless in this situation? Of course not. But one immediately sees how Goh Hoon may be difficult for her to resist. It's not just that he's handsome and wealthy; it's the way that, when he enters a scene, it's immediately clear just how completely he dominates it; he's a man so used to power, financial and sexual, that it radiates from him like an aura. The magnetic properties of this sort of power is the core of this version of The Housemaid - Hoon exercises it casually and carelessly; Hae-ra and Mi-hee plot to retain it; Eun-yi and Byung-sik are drawn into its orbit; and Nami, born to it, is being taught to have the same relation to it as her father. If Kim Ki-young's Housemaid was about the emerging consumer culture trapping people as much as it superficially empowered them, Im Sang-soo's is about the other end of the scale, how this eventually concentrates wealth and power into the hands of a small, unchecked group.
Full review at EFC.