The Housemaid (1960)

South Korea

3.5*
Director:
Kim Ki-young
Screenwriter:
Kim Ki-young
Director of Photography:
Kim Deok-jin

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.

Attack the Gas Station! (1999)

South Korea

4*
Director:
Kim Sang-Jin

Screenwriter:
Park Jeong-woo

Director of Photography:
Jung Woo Choi

Running time: 113 minutes

Original title:
주유소 습격 사건
Transliterated title:
Juyuso seubgyuksageun

This film is a gas! (I know, I know…) With the same kind of adrenaline in its visuals that reminded me of Run, Lola, Run, this  South Korean film is simple-minded but dedicated to its goal of providing sheer riproaring entertainment. In the opening scene, the film’s four main characters, a group of guys fresh out of high school, rob a gas station and proceed to destroy the entire property in a rampage of destruction. In the following scene, which takes place a few days later, the guys are back to rob the same station again, but this time they have spent their money on clothes that make them seem a little more respectable.

The problem is that the manager of the gas station has taken precautions and tells them that his wife has taken the day’s profits with her and now she can’t be reached. The director, however, decides to show us early on that the manager is lying and has hidden the money somewhere in the office. As a result, the four would-be robbers look like even greater buffoons since they fail to search the office. But more on their stupidity later.

The action-packed first scene of Attack the Gas Station! raises the question how the film could possibly sustain its rhythm. Of course, it can’t, but we are provided with some very cool visuals, from upside-down shots and shots taken from very low angles, to shots in which the camera is pointed vertically upward, or tilted, with wide-angle lenses, or taking the place of a character being kicked in the face by a boot heel that comes straight at us. There are also some rather silly uses of the slow motion, but all in all the film has a great time testing out some visual tricks and doesn’t bore us with repetition.

The story is not complicated. The four guys take the manager of the gas station and his three employees hostage, and when anybody pulls up to have gas put in their car, the robbers take the money for themselves, while they are waiting for the manager’s wife to return home and deliver the money to them. Random scenes of chaos erupt when customers are rude or when a local gang comes to collect money from a high school boy who works at the station. But whatever happens, the leader of the four robbers has a very serene quality about him and even though the four of them might not have a clue how to handle the situation, they make it clear that they are in control – and, somehow, they usually are.

The characters they come up against are hardly the rough underworld types, although there is initially much talk about the gang leader, Yongari, but he turns out to be a complete whimp. One of the guys, Bulldozer, keeps watch over the steadily growing group of hostages, but he behaves like a bad imitation of a Toshiro Mifune character, baring his teeth, pulling faces and forcing people to crush their skulls into the floor.

But the film has some wonderful moments, and they usually involve music. Halfway through the film, a big fight scene is accompanied by a techno version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons (Spring)”, and later on, when the hi-fi breaks down, the Yongari gang performs in the background, and this musical number stands as the highlight of the entire film, for it is unexpected, well-executed and highly entertaining.

The film doesn’t quite know how to keep itself busy in the second half, but when all the different factions come together during the climax, and the four main characters’ back stories have been established, we get a wonderful combination of form and content that makes for a very appropriate ending to a film that never takes itself too seriously.