A class apart: why Im Sang-soo loses to Kim Ki-young in the battle of The Housemaids

Posters for The Housemaid by Kim Ki-young (left, 1960) and Im Sang-soo (right, 2010)
Posters for The Housemaid by Kim Ki-young (left, 1960) and Im Sang-soo (right, 2010)

What really intrigued me about Kim Ki-young’s original Housemaid (1960) was when I read that the female audience were so incensed by the seducing housemaid’s character, that they stood up in cinema auditoriums and shouted: “Kill the wench!” I can’t help but think that a female watching Im Sang-soo’s 2010 remake would remark: “nice house.”

A story of moral errors to make Shakespeare weep – Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid (Hanyo, 하녀, in Korean), shows us the fatal consequence when a middle class family man (Lee Jeong-jae) indulges in an adulterous affair with a newly hired housemaid (Jeon Do-yeon). Im’s film, released in 2010, trails fifty years behind the notorious original of the same name, directed by the enigmatic Kim Ki- young. It is always easy to criticise a remake when the original has already garnered its own critical acclaim. On the one hand, Im’s film strays enough in its reworking of the characters and story to be considered its own film. After all, Jeon Do-yeon herself remarked: “I saw the original film but I just watched it thinking it was just a completely different movie, not [a] reference. You could say that Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid – 2010 is a separate film from the original”1. But whilst this could be interpreted as a bold decision, Im could have made a much more unsettling and intriguing film if he were more loyal to the original. That is, to move the film beyond the sex and romp storyline in being a challenging social commentary, which is what Kim Ki-young did when he made The Housemaid.

Lee Eun-shim plays the sinister maid in Kim Ki-young's original
Lee Eun-shim plays the sinister maid in Kim Ki-young's original

Kim Ki-young’s style of filmmaking was a breakaway from popular forms of melodrama in Korean cinema of the 1960s. His trademark was fusing eroticism and the grotesque, with a strong female character leading the show. Think of the Korean sisterly companion to David Cronenberg’s The Fly and you have Kim Ki-young’s Insect Woman. His feature, The Housemaid, had Kim’s stamp all over it: melodrama crossing over into horror and title character in contention portrayed as a fierce femme fatale. In Kim’s film, we see the housemaid, played powerfully by Lee Eun-shim, seduce the husband of a well-to-do household. Her passions manifest into menace and meanness, with her ambition to take over the household resulting in great detriment to the family. Shockingly, this film ended Lee’s career as viewers were too outraged by her character!

The key themes explored in Kim’s film were class and female identity. The film was made during a marked period of social change for South Korea. Marriage was propagated as being crucial to economic development. A good wife meant a good nation and in a pseudo-progressive kind of way South Korea was more insistent on working mothers. This ‘good wife’ character is portrayed in the husband’s wife who relentlessly sews to earn money so her husband and two kids can move to a bigger Western-style home with luxury household items. She is the perfect contrast to the vindictive, predator-like housemaid but isn’t too far in her social ambitions – which is one amongst many insightful dilemmas Kim challenges us to judge as viewer. Adding in the fact that Kim has stated that he characterised the housemaid to embody the paranoia that many city dwellers had toward rural economic migrants, the distinction between who is right and wrong becomes even more ambiguous. Kim also explores the male character effectively. When the consequences of his affair come into effect, he is forced to realise his familial failures. Although the ending would probably make a feminist choke on her popcorn, Kim’s characterisation makes for an effectual, thought-provoking film beyond the shocks of sexuality explored in a conservative time for Korean cinema.

It's almost the house that's the star in Im Sang-soo's remake
It's almost the house that's the star in Im Sang-soo's remake

The opposite, however can be said for Im’s offering. Judgments aside (for just a moment), the remake has had a remarkable number of favourable reviews, not least an entry into the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. So where did it go wrong for me? It is certainly a lustrous affair, with some provocative sex scenes that could make an ajumma blush to high heaven. And those visuals! The film shows us the life of the upper class: an imposingly decadent mansion, impeccable interiors and high culture tastes. Im portrays this magnificently and generously. However Im failed to add enough depth to his characters to define the film any more than Lee Jeong-jae’s abs (sorry, had to say it). The acting is generally good from main characters: Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jeong-jae and Seo Woo but the real scene-stealer is Yoon Yeo-jeong in her portrayal of the senior housemaid. Yoon plays the role with equal measures of feistiness and fragility: doing the underdog’s work with a bite. By contrast, the least memorable character is the housemaid herself and dare I say: Kim would be tossing in his grave. Jeon’s great acting engages, but she seemed to have been led poorly if at all in the understudy of Eun-yi, her character. Eun-yi has a major in early education and yet shows no sign of being anything beyond her lowly “working class” persona. Jeon’s portrayal of a childlike and pure-hearted nature made her sexuality appear primitive and other times naive. I guess the point was that this housemaid was to be taken advantage of, like a lamb thrown to the wolves – but it just didn’t work. Jeon’s character came across more bimbo than anything, which made her mental breakdown as unapparent to us much as if she were watching the movie herself.

There’s not much more to say regarding the other characters, as insufficient exploration or background is given to them. Hoon, the husband is presented as a power hungry patriarch, who has been brought up to believe that women, like wealth are at his expense. Similarly, wife Hae-ra and her icy mother remain two-dimensional in their cruelty to Eun-yi. If I were to read these characters on paper, I would double check I hadn’t clicked on a melodramatic K-drama synopsis by accident.

The opening scene is where Im showed greatest promise of an original remake. Im hones in on the topic of la femme in conveying a cynical but modern image of Korean women today: you see girls smoking, girls hanging out with foreigners, working girls, female students, girls in short skirts singing karaoke. The suicide of a girl, literally on the street these girls are on elicits nothing more than a passive voyeurism. It teeters on social commentary regarding the status of women amongst the consumerism that is occurring in South Korea as a result of its mammoth economic growth. Despite this, Im’s exploration of female identity pretty much begins and ends in the scene with Hae-ra reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. All in all, a shame that Im left reality on the doorstep as Eun-yi enters the surreally decadent mansion, where instead we are given a formulaic story with minor shocks along the way.

  1. Interview with 10 Asia, 21 April 2010, article here []

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