Bless this mess

Im Sang-soo offers a witty, high-tension take on The Housemaid

A maid (Eun-Yi) runs afoul of her employer (Seo Woo) in Im Sang-soo's reworking of The Housemaid

FILM One of the most famous Korean films of its era — and notorious for its near-horror catalog of shocking behaviors — Kim Ki-young's original 1960 The Housemaid took a caustic view of the new middle class emerging in a nation still crawling out from under the wreckage of war.

Its titular figure is not the sole but the third in a series of young women who bedevil an imperious yet apparently irresistible music professor, this one a smoker (gasp!) and thief hired as a domestic. When she succeeds where the others failed by seducing her employer, all further hell breaks loose. This lurid, recently restored wonder can't quite make up its mind which is worse: the coldly exploitative bourgeoisie (even their children are obnoxious), or the specimens of youthful femininity who forever seem a heartbeat away from romantic hysteria manifesting itself in blackmail or stab wounds.

By contrast, Im Sang-soo's extremely loose new remake — more of a complete rethink — has no doubt which side to blame. Its sole titular figure Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) is pure innocent victim, a simple soul who can't believe her luck at first in finding employment at what might easily be mistaken for a royal palace. But it's just the humble home for Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), hard-bodied captain of politics and industry, and trophy wife Hera (Seo Woo), who is heavily pregnant with their second child. This job is not unlike being asked to dust at the Louvre, but our awed heroine is relieved to discover that her bosses are cultured and kind; their first child is a little angel; and even the stern chief housekeeper (Yun Yeo-jong, who gets a hilarious drunk scene) is made of softer stuff than she initially lets on.

But all this changes when Eun-yi lets herself be seduced by the master and gets pregnant. This triggers a series of acts (encouraged by Hoon's particularly fearsome mother-in-law) that grow to encompass near-fatal "accidents," poisonings, and lines like "How could that bastard do this to me? With the bitch who washes my underwear?!?"

Even farther from genre horror that its predecessor, this Housemaid is a glacially reserved black comedy that regards its characters as figures in a gorgeously expensive Architectural Digest landscape. As such it's witty and entertaining until the very end, when the urge to go overboard can no longer be resisted (apparently), and an unconvincing final atrocity is followed by some sort of dream sequence that simply, ham-fistedly underlines what we already knew: the filthy rich are, well, in need of a moral wash. *

THE HOUSEMAID opens Fri/2 in Bay Area theaters.


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