The Housemaid lacks originality, reinforces stereotypes of Korean society

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Jeon Do-yeon and Lee Jung-jae in 'The Housemaid'

A shy young woman gets hired to become a wealthy Korean family’s maid.

Very quickly Eun-yi (the maid played by Do-yeon Jeon) finds her way into the good graces of the head of the household. The man’s wife is pregnant with twins, and is unable to please him sexually. The man begins to get ideas about the maid that he just hired. One night he comes down, and begins to fondle Eun-yi. Hesitantly, the maid gives in and appears to enjoy their clandestine sexual activities. Early on, the older, more experienced maid becomes suspicious and catches on to the affair. Meanwhile the maid begins to develop an especially close relationship with the couples’ daughter.

The elder maid informs the man’s mother-in-law of her son-in-law’s activities in secret. At a moment of chance, while the Eun-yi is cleaning the chandelier, the mother-in-law sees her opportunity to get back at the maid. She pushes her off of the ladder, causing her to fall two stories onto granite floors. While in the hospital, the mother-in-law and daughter confirm that she is indeed pregnant. The mother-in-law and daughter begin to poison Eun-yi, eventually she is knocked out and an abortion takes place at the bidding of the mother-in-law while she is out. The family thinks they have been rid of this self-inflicted plague, however she returns, hangs herself from the chandelier and lights herself on fire. The wealthy family continues on with their life as if nothing had happened.

This film has all the twisted back-stabbing at every turn that one has come to expect from the Korean cinema industry. The rich in Korea are often portrayed as cold-hearted, careless, sick people who wear the façade of friendliness, this film was no different. The portrayal of the head of the household by Jung-jae Lee, was convincing and quite reminiscent of Jie-tae Yu’s performance in the film Oldboy, as the wealthy, demented prison owner, who imprisons a man for over a decade due to a small remark that he whispered as a boy.

Though The Housemaid is a well-made film, it is lacking in emotive story-telling substance. At some points it appears as if there will be a twist in fate for the maid, but her end is almost as predictable as the affair was at the beginning of the movie. Her character never musters the courage to stand up for what is obviously right, even when she has gained the upper hand. In the typical fashion of what is expected of a person from a lower socio-economic status, she is unable to truly gain anything from the situation. Instead, in a show of weakness and neurosis, she takes her own life. In other words, this film reinforces the idea of the rich enjoying power over the poor, and the the poor being essentially disposable assets for the rich.

The saddest part about the film is that everyone blames the woman for the affair, when it was indeed the man who had instigated it. And after all was said and done, he was still the head of the household and enjoying his life. There is one small redeeming element in the film which seems to give the viewer hope, and that is the kindness of the wealthy family’s oldest daughter, Nami (played by Syeo-Hyeon Ahn). The girl witnessed the act of aggression by her grandma towards Eun-yi and even told her that she felt bad for her because she believed her to be a “kind person.”

Overall this film is worth watching, but it is not deserving of any special recognition or accolades. If you’re interested in a film to burn some time, this will do the trick, but don’t expect much more than that.

© Aaron M. Nolan 2012