The Housemaid after 60 years
Why Kim Ki-young’s 1960 classic remains such a significant masterpiece of Korean cinema
This feature contains spoilers for The Housemaid (1960).
Any timeline of Korean cinema will include a large dot in 1960. The year Kim Ki-young’s masterpiece The Housemaid (Hanyeo) was released and took the nation’s cinema in a new direction forever.
If there is a universe where The Housemaid does not exist, this is surely one where many of Korea’s greatest ever films are also absent.
In a neat piece of symmetry, exactly 60 years after its release, Korean cinema would enjoy its largest global recognition as Bong Joon-ho’s all-conquering Parasite swept the international awards season, including a first-ever foreign language Best Picture award at the 2020 Oscars.
The Housemaid is not just an animal of its time. A contemporary revisit of the classic is equally rewarding. 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) – The Housemaid is the story of the destruction of a family in the wake of hiring a new housemaid.
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, then eventually seducing him and falling pregnant by him. Mrs. Kim convinces Myung-sook to induce a miscarriage by falling down the stairs. After this, Myung-sook’s behaviour spirals out of control, as she threatens to kill their now new-born child and tricks their son Chang-soon into believing she has poisoned him, resulting in him panicking and falling down the stairs to his death.
Myung-sook then persuades Mr. Kim to enter a suicide pact and both die by swallowing rat poison. It ends by returning to its opening scene of Mr. Kim reading the newspaper report, before turning to the camera and telling the audience that this could happen to anybody.
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.
It was only at the end of the 1980s after the end of Korea’s military rule that the country established a formalised film archive and The Housemaid reached a wider local and international audience.
So after all this time, what makes The Housemaid so special?
A director’s film
For directors around the world, The Housemaid is a vital touchpoint of filmmaking mastery.
American filmmaker Martin Scorsese counts The Housemaid as a major influence, selecting the film in his Criterion World Cinema collection and stating: “This remarkable picture… [it] is quite unlike anything I have ever seen.
“I was startled the first time I saw the picture,” says Scorsese. “By its mood of upset, its bold expressionism, its sense of the potential danger in all human interaction, and its intense and passionately realised sense of claustrophobia.
“I don’t think it’s an easy film, but it is a rich and rewarding one. And it’s easy to understand the profound effect Hanyeo has had on so many film-makers in Korea, including Park Chan-wook, Im Sang-soo and Bong Joon-ho,” adds Scorsese.
Bong owes a great debt to the forerunner of Parasite (2019), as the trail of the malicious servant infecting the rich household starts here.
“What he [The Housemaid director Kim] gave to us Korean filmmakers was the originality of his visual style, and this uniquely raw attitude – a need to portray human desires honestly,” Bong told Sight and Sounds magazine in 2020. “Those, and the uncanny ways he dealt with cinematic space. These things were all shocking to me – especially the fact that he was able to create such works during the military regime.
“Women in Kim’s films are not your femme fatale archetypes, though they are always stronger than men – the maid in The Housemaid, for instance, is a very powerful working-class character,” adds Bong.
In 2010, Im Sang-soo remade The Housemaid and for him the original was a product of its time: “The background of that film was its accurate description of the socio-economic environment at the time,” Im told Screen Anarchy. “The film emerged when Korea was just beginning to develop its middle class and many young women from the countryside would move to the city to work as housemaids for these burgeoning middle class families.”
Horror starter gun
The Housemaid is part domestic-thriller, part-melodrama, but undeniable a horror through its central confrontations and conclusion. Horror possess the strange juxtaposition of being one of cinema’s oldest and most popular genres, that is often snubbed at the top table at global awards ceremonies and rankings of country’s greatest ever films.
This is not so for The Housemaid, which is widely perceived as Korea’s greatest film, while being accepted as very much a horror.
In their introduction to the book Korean Horror Cinema, editors Alison Peirce and Daniel Martin state: “Undoubtedly, The Housemaid had a huge influence, both on Korean cinema in general and on the psycho-sexual cycle of women’s revenge horror that would follow.” In her chapter for the same book, Hyangjin Lee states that The Housemaid is a ghost film without a ghost, focused more on the family drama that any supernatural element.
Peirce and Martin add: “The Housemaid led the way for a cycle of supernatural revenge tales, focusing primarily on cruelly murdered women, Korean horror in the 1960s continued to diversify without losing its melodramatic edge.”
The wider fear of the influence of capitalism and the destruction of the family unit, as also seen in Madame Freedom (1956), were the ideal themes for horror at the time of The Housemaid’s release in 1960.
‘A hallucinatory experience’
Korean cinema exploded locally in the 1960s and 70s, being one of the most active and profitable in Asia, and as the military government struggle to regulate it, subversive themes crept through.
For Kyung Hyun Kim, professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of California, The Housemaid is a film with thematic richness: “The structure of The Housemaid blurs the division between reality and fiction, making for a hallucinatory experience,” Kyung says in his Criterion essay on the film.
“Much of the music is diegetic, the acting is subtle, and the revenge plot concocted by the angry maid, who seeks blood to avenge the loss of her child, is not overwhelmingly implausible, despite being rooted in melodrama.”
Kyung says the constant movement of the camera of The Housemaid, including “exquisite close-ups, meticulous framing of shadows, and occasional use of an at times cacophonous modernist score” makes the film seem more akin with a European melodrama of the 1920 or early 30s.
“Kim Ki-young defied both genre rules and social conventions by playfully crossing the borders between reality and fiction, social rules and personal cravings, and gluttony and self-restraint, helping Koreans suffering poverty and other postwar trauma forget their miseries,” adds Kyung.
For Chris Berry, professor of Film Studies at King’s College London, the significance of The Housemaid hinges on five key elements.
Firstly, it managed to capture the spirit of South Korea at the time, he wrote in his chapter on the film for Rediscovering Korean Cinema, stating: “The Housemaid goes beyond the tabloid appeal of a murder case that has been in the news to encompass the huge economic and cultural transformation of South Korea after the Korean War from one of the poorest nations in the world to a wealthy industrialised society.” These elements include the film’s focus on the ambition of the middle classes and the Westernisation, such as the two-story house where the drama unfolds.
Berry’s second element is that it made Kim Ki-young a famous director as he so successfully captured the anxiety of the time. Kim effectively went on to remake The Housemaid a further two times in Woman of Fire (1971) and Woman of Fire ’82 (1982). Kim himself says: “I did those remakes because I could portray the changes in Korean society and the crisis of the bourgeois family every 10 years through the story”.
Thirdly, The Housemaid initiated the horror genre in South Korea, as Peirce and Martin acknowledge throughout Korean Horror Cinema, with key characteristics of the female haunting figure and the gothic two-story house running through to modern K-Horror classic A Tale of Two Sisters (2003).
Fourthly, for Berry when Kim was rediscovered in the 1990s, The Housemaid caused a reassessment of Korean cinema that had previously been understood to be grounded in realism. The film suffered decade of unavailability, but at the 1997 Pusan (now Busan) International Film Festival the film was screened and the entire history of Korean cinema was reassessed in light of the themes that The Housemaid addressed.
Lastly, Berry’s fifth element of the significance of The Housemaid, is that the longevity of the film’s appeal and its influence on other films, suggests that the cultural issues it addressed in 1960 remain relevant today. Through its Kim remakes, to the 2010 Im remake, all the way through to Parasite, the cinematic assessment of Korea’s class divide and the impact of Westernisation, is a topic consistently revisited.