THE HOUSEMAID (1960)
The film which changed a nation’s cinema forever, Kim Ki-young's masterpiece on morality and lust is a filmmaking tour de force of festering threat
“Vulgar”, “excessive”, “grotesque”, these were some of the descriptors given to The Housemaid on its release, as Kim Ki-young managed to agitate the moral sensibility of an entire country.
Some realised the film’s power at the time but as the years have passed the critical consensus has almost exclusively shifted to comprehend as The Housemaid as unquestionably one of Korea’s greatest ever films.
Indeed, it was named by the Korean Film Archive as the greatest Korean film ever in 2014 – in a three-way split with Aimless Bullet (1961) and The March of Fools (1975).
Part domestic-thriller, part-melodrama, but undeniably a horror through its central confrontations and themes. In many senses the film was the starter gun of K-Horror, with the 60s going on to produce a range of superb scare fests.
Korean cinema is today famed for its revenge films and as a constant theme which returns to its screens, with the frenzied revenge of the housemaid laying the foundations here.
The film opens on composer Dong-sik Kim (Kim Jin-kyu) reading a newspaper story to his wife, Mrs. Kim (Ju Jeung-ryu), about a man falling in love with his maid, a notion she finds laughable but Mr. Kim seems to understand.
Due to her pregnancy, Mrs. Kim becomes too exhausted from working on a sewing machine to support the family so Mr. Kim decides to hire a housemaid, Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim), to help with the work around the house.
The new housemaid behaves oddly from the outset, catching rats with her hands, spying on the composer, and trying to seduce him. For Mr. Kim, he must avoid this toxic temptation, while Mrs. Kim bears witness to the potential destruction of her family.
It is a dark tale, where the drama escalates and the walls of the house seems to close in on the characters as the film progresses.
Kim Ki-young established himself as one of Korea’s greatest filmmakers firstly through his superb direction, including those sweeping shots between the house’s rooms which provide a still-stylish delivery today.
Alongside this Kim managed to successfully capture the anxiety of the time. He effectively went on to remake The Housemaid a further two times in Woman of Fire (1971) and Woman of Fire ’82 (1982). Kim himself said: “I did those remakes because I could portray the changes in Korean society and the crisis of the bourgeois family every 10 years."
Much of this anxiety at the time centred on the perceived loss of the family unit and then on male anxiety, including the shifting power dynamics as a male master finds himself pursued in a flip of sexual dominance.
The Housemaid is more than an historical checkpoint and lesson in 60s morality, it remains a breathtakingly crafted film. Hitchcockian, but in no sense derivatively so, it is a modern thriller in black-and-white classic robes. No comprehension of Korean cinema of any era is possible without a viewing of this chef d’oeuvre of Korean cinema.