WTF ASIA 34: The Housemaid (2010)
On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me one maid a MILF-ing.
For free with Amazon Prime free trial: http://www.amazon.com/Housemaid-English-Subtitled-Do-yeon-Jeon/dp/B005DHXC2S/. On Youtube for $3.00: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JE55PLTch1c.
The movie starts out in the big bustling city. Everyone is doing something. Working, hanging out, exercising, playing. None of them seem to notice the woman standing on the edge of a building until she hits the ground. People flock to see, some with their cameras out. Eun-yi, who had just arrived at work nearby, is curious, but not enough to go immediately. When she does get around to checking out the scene, everyone is gone and pretty much everything is cleaned up. The last moments of the womanâ€™s life went unnoticed and her death would eventually be erased. But, nevermind that, on with the story.
Eun-yi is a poor, working-class woman in her late thirties. She lives in a small apartment and sharing a bed with her friend and co-worker. Apparently, however, she has been hired to work as a maid and nanny to a very rich couple. From her cramped apartment in the busy city to a large, sparse, and quite house, it is a huge contrast.
Eun-yi first meets Miss Cho, the original housemaid who shows Eun-yi the ropes. Then she meets Hae-ra, a twenty-something and very pregnant trophy wife whom Eun-yi must aid in physical therapy. Then she meets Nami, Hae-raâ€™s young daughter, whom Eun-yi immediately bonds with. Finally, she meets Hoon, the patriarch of the family, who is actually pretty much the same age as Eun-yi. There are also Hoonâ€™s two bodyguards, but they are ultimately unimportant in this movie.
Miss Cho is somewhat chummy with Eun-yi, teaching her the ways of the household with cynical wit. It turns out that her son has become a prominent prosecutor, yet she has continued to toil as a housemaid for decades for reasons that appear to be connected to Hae-raâ€™s family. Hae-ra is civil and not entirely unfriendly towards Eun-yi, but seems rather detached. Nami is rather serious for a young girl, which actually compliments Eun-yiâ€™s rather sunny nature. It is unclear whether Nami really needs a nanny, but it is expected and she seems to appreciate Eun-yi if nothing else. Hoon comes and goes, but the world seems to revolve around him. When he is home, he tends to like playing the piano, just lounging around listening to European Classical music, andâ€¦
Eun-yi, for a main character, is somewhat hard to pin down. Some may call her dumb, some may call her childlike. She may be both of those things, but she is also obedient. She rarely questions why she has to do anything, rarely resists an order, and rarely talks about her work with the family without prompting. She does what is expected of her.
The family goes on some trip to another house and Eun-yi comes along to play with Nami. That night, Hae-ra and Hoon try to have sex, but it does not really work out, maybe because Hae-ra cannot stop talking about having more kids. Hae-ra decides to give Hoon oral sex, which I suppose works better, but it turns out that Hoon is not totally satisfied. As implied in an early scene when he passively switches between looking at Hae-ra and Eun-yi, he has decided to indulge himself with the help. So, this night, he goes to Eun-yiâ€™s room, tells her to get undressed, and to fellate him. She does. He flexes. Hoon is all powerful. And it begins.
This movie is sort of a remake of a classic Korean film called The HousemaidÂ that was made in 1960. I say â€œsort ofâ€ because it seems to be less of an update and more of a response. The original film was about a middle class family that hires an eccentric maid who seduces the husband and tears the family apart in the process. It was controversial, not just for its sexual undertones, but also for its cynical take on South Koreaâ€™s modern middle class ideals and for depicting the family unit as so fragile as to fall apart when threatened. Personally, I found it a little hammy, but I can appreciate the power that it had at the time.
The 2010 remake tells the story primarily from the point of view of the housemaid. Far from the crazed and possessive mistress of chaos from the original, Eun-yi is rather passive, obedient to a fault and hopelessly naÃ¯ve for her age. She is not necessarily an innocent victim, but is simply unable to understand the ramifications of the affair or what might happen to her. Both her friend and Miss Cho try to warn her, but she appears to ignore the severity. When Hoon gives her a check to keep her quiet, it is implied that she mistakes it as a gift of love; the idea of bringing it up with Hae-ra never occurred to her.
In comparing the two movies, many say that the remake falls short simply because the storyline and theme have become clichÃ©d and stale. Whereas the original was about the destruction of the middle class family due to internal weaknesses, the remake was all about how evil rich people are. A rich family treating their domestic servant in less than legal ways? Ho hum. Wake me up when one of the family members gets strip searched. The original film had a family struggling to maintain itself in the face of pure chaos while the remake had the family pouncing on any disturbance of order. In that sense, no, the film breaks little new ground. That said, I am less interested in its treatment of class than I am in its treatment of family and gender.
During the nearly fifty years between the original and the remake, there have been several Korean and Asian movies that have dared to paint the family as something problematic, but the family is still considered one of the greatest and most basic building blocks in Asian society, so those types of movies often get treated as scandalous. The differences between the Asian family and the Western family may be less numerous than people may claim, but the idea of criticizing the family unit holds more power in Asia than it is now in the West. And in this movie, it is the family that is the danger. When Eun-yi unwittingly exposes a weakness in the family, elements within almost immediately act to neutralize her and end up making her life miserable and negating her existence as a person. Her one decision to openly defy her employers leads to worse retribution, which threatens to drive her insane. The very last scene of the movie, which had initially perplexed me as well as a lot of other viewers, can be seen as an extreme coping technique. I wonâ€™t spoil what happens, but you might have to stretch a little to figure out what is going and why.
It is notable that the household is not immediately hostile towards Eun-yi. Hae-ra acts nice towards Eun-yi because she sees no reason not to be until she becomes convinced that Eun-yi poses a challenge. Perhaps it is also Eun-yi is significantly older than her that Hae-ra does not consider her a threat. But it is not about Hoon getting someone younger, but being allowed everything. The idea of Eun-yi resisting his sexual demands may not have occurred to her, but it did not occur to him either. As Hae-raâ€™s mother said, he had always gotten everything he wanted.
Oh, thatâ€™s right, I had not mentioned Hae-raâ€™s mother. Mi Hee is introduced about halfway through the movie, when Miss Cho tells her that she suspects that Eun-yi may be pregnant. Mi Hee has had no interactions with Eun-yi up to this point, but her immediate response is to treat Eun-yi as a threat. It is Mi Hee who initiates the plans to make Eun-yiâ€™s life a living hell, not because Eun-yi had sex with Hoon, but due to the mere possibility that Eun-yi may be pregnant with a child who may eventually pose a threat to her grandchildrenâ€™s inheritance. It is unclear of her personal connection to Hoonâ€™s family, only that she knows their dark secrets and she wants in. It is also unclear how old she is, though the actress is maybe four years older than the actors playing Hoon and Eun-yi. Whether those four years would have made it awkward for her to marry Hoon herself, she seems just as satisfied to manipulate her daughter and encourage her rage against Eun-yi.
While there is some degree of anger against Hoon for straying on the part of both Hae-ra and Mi Hee, the bulk of their actions are against Eun-yi. Hoon is power personified and the consequences of going after him need not be stated. In fact, they are never stated. He doesnâ€™t threaten. He doesnâ€™t intimidate. He doesnâ€™t actively throw his weight around. He doesnâ€™t lash out when challenged. He doesnâ€™t need to. He just is. He does whatever. Or he doesnâ€™t, whatever; he doesnâ€™t care. He is confident that he will get what he wants, if not now, then in a few hours. It is the women in his life who scramble, scheme, struggle, hurt, and fight. He glides in and out of the move, casually leaving scandal in his wake without a thought to what the women are doing and utterly unaware of the damage that he has so casuallyÂ caused. He may be as naÃ¯ve as Eun-yi, yet he remains almost completely unscathed. It is notable that, aside from the opening scene, the two insignificant bodyguards are the only real noticeable other men in the movie. Miss Cho has a son who is an attorney or something, but he doesnâ€™t appear in the story and his existence seems to be there just to contrast with how his mother is doing. The original movie included an adolescent son as part of the family, but this movie has only the promise of twin baby boys. Even the majority of the smaller one-off roles in the family, which could have been played by men, are played by women. This could be seen as a yay for feminism or it could be said to emphasize the singular point of patriarchal power as personified by Hoon. He is really the center of the universe here.
There is a sense of â€œwhat could have beenâ€ with this movie, given that it went through a major rewrite before hitting the screen. Perhaps in a bitterly ironic twist, it was the male directorâ€™s rewriting that led the female writer to publicly quit. Supposedly, the initial script would have been more wordy and witty. Maybe this would have fleshed out the characters, particularly Eun-yi; yet, would more dialogue have ruined the atmosphere of the movie? Some have speculated that it could have, but we donâ€™t actually know. Maybe that is for another remake.
Next Time: Lagaan (India: 2001, approx. 225 minutes!!!).
Time After Next: The Machine Girl (Japan: 2008, approx. 95 minutes).