Director of Photography:
Running time: 111 minutes
Original title: 하녀
Transliterated title: Hanyeo
South Korea’s Housemaid is a bizarre, over-the-top melodrama that is as enthralling as it is embarrassing. The acting is wooden on the one hand, completely histrionic on the other, and the story often lacks credibility, and yet there is a continuous sense of psychological anguish that extends to the country’s cinema today.
Made in 1960, the film features a working-class family and in particular the husband and father, Mr Kim, a piano teacher and part-time composer, who is assaulted by numerous females whose obsession with him seems to lead his family to certain destruction, though he never sought to bring such dishonour on his household.
And the females are certainly a force to be reckoned with. Mr Kim leads the small choir at a factory, where young females quickly take a liking to him and try to make a move by attending private lessons at his home. When the film opens, one girl in the choir, Ms Kwak, leaves a love letter for him in the piano, but when he finds it he reports her and she is kicked out of the factory.
Kwak’s housemate, Kyunghee Cho, decides to take a chance and starts paying for private lessons at Kim’s house. Kim’s wife is expecting their third child and they are about to move into a larger house. They need the money, but they also need someone to take care of the new space and at Kim’s urging, Kyunghee finds a housemaid for them: an obviously evil woman who must have been an inspiration for Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, except this one doesn’t even seem normal at the outset.
Both the housemaid and Cho become more and more unhinged as the film progresses, but theirs are not the only psychological problems that may be detected. Kim’s young daughter Aesoon is suffering from some physical malady and spends the whole film on crutches, which makes it easier for her young brother Chengsoon to tease her and generally be a mean sibling. Aesoon subsequently spends most the film sobbing.
It must be a terrible traumatic state of affairs, but the absolutely spineless Kim shows no courage or determination to make the house a good environment for his family. He is weak, without any backbone whatsoever, and when the young women start twisting him around their little fingers, threatening to accuse him of rape, he duly becomes a piece of clay in their hands. A woman scorned is nothing to be trifled with, but a lunatic scorned is something you don’t even want to contemplate.
Over the whole narrative hangs the constant threat of rat poison, placed in a kitchen cupboard to repel the rats which cause Kim’s wife to suffer fainting spells so severe she must be dragged to bed every time one of the long-tailed creatures make an appearance. And together with this poison, the probability of someone committing either suicide or homicide is very real, and creates notable suspense.
We can ask ourselves at many points why the family doesn’t just kick the housemaid out. Are they so hard up that they absolutely require someone cleaning the house, even if that person is totally insane? Honestly, these are not model parents. Even when they have discovered the housemaid’s pitch-black intentions, they still allow her to roam the house freely, cooking meals for them (which they prefer not to eat, for fear she might have poisoned the food) and interacting with their children.
This is a film about lunatics, and perhaps that was director Kim Ki-young’s purpose, for an opening scene shows the happy couple, before the intrusion of the housemaid, reading about a man elsewhere who had come to a terrible end after his involvement with a housemaid. This scene hints at a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-style setup, a hint that is only reinforced in the closing coda, but in between these two scenes there is a very real sense the characters are at the mercy of the housemaid, exaggerated and incredible as her acts may seem.
What does one make of a melodrama as ridiculous as this? One can only laugh. But those bookends are very interesting and if examined through these two lenses, the film takes on a new, insightful and vastly superior tone about the nature of the cinema, since the filmmaker seems to acknowledge his story, which takes place in a world where it rains most of the time and where lightning strikes every time something ominous is happening, is a fabrication. And yet, such exaggeration can be enjoyable. Not because it appeals to our desire to see something real, but because, first and foremost, such a clearly fictional story can evoke very real fears in the viewer.