Cannes Review: The Housemaid

The more I ponder The Housemaid, the more I appreciate its nuances. A Korean film that delves into rich vs. poor far better than Cannes-mate Robin Hood, the movie features half a dozen winning performances. The remake of the (also Korean) 1960 film entitled Hanyo, The Housemaid is updated and glossily rendered for our time. See it. Consider it. Join the movement toward serious cinema.

The story? Jeon Do-yeon (as Eun-yi) is a newly hired housekeeper. She's hired to be a nanny to three children, though two are still in the womb of the expectant mother. The house she's hired to work in is lavish but cold, a clear indicator of the treatment she's going to receive, though she's gentle and kind. Eun-yi glides through life with a smile and a brightness to her, but the uber-rich family soon attempts all measures to pollute her spirit. All Eun-yi wants to do is give. All the family wants to do is take. It's a combustible match.

Eun-yi becomes embroiled in massive familial drama while attempting to care for the husband, the pregnant wife, and their polite but disconnected little child, Nami, as played by Ahn Seo-hyeon. Seo-hyeon's work is great in the film. She's young but clever, stalwart yet vulnerable. She embodies the audience's reaction to the film, which vacillates from intrigued to horrified. Another solid character comes in the form of Byeong-sik, who runs the household. Eun-yi finds herself being both mentored and chided by the older and more established head maid, another tie-in to the world outside the wealthy but unsympathetic household.

I should note that The Housemaid is also a very sensual film, though the sexuality is completely tied up in dominance and manipulation, which severely limits the engagement factor for viewers. Most of the film is set in a modern mansion, contemporary architecture and smooth lines mixed with a galling lack of joy or happiness.

The opening and closing scenes of The Housemaid don't seem at all related, but they must be, given the talent flashed by director Im Sang-soo. The former scene features images of a suicide, with life soon moving on at a brisk pace near an anonymous chalk outline, while the latter occurs in English, to the beat of an iconic Marilyn Monroe performance. There are little indicators throughout The Housemaid that signal to an active viewer, "Perk up! This is important." There's also an English-language poster displayed prominently that ends with the quote, "They were not worldly men" -- a reference to Miss Lonelyhearts, circa 1933. Is it all a dream? Will our gentle protagonist survive the wicked ways of the money-blessed (yet empathy-deficient) family? These are the linear questions considered, though like all great works of art the larger themes are the ones that stay with you. The Housemaid is a collection of beauty that lashes out against the morally bankrupt. Eun-yi is a servant, but she is also in the right, and she is the "hero" of the tale. That her journey is a difficult one is simply a failing of real life to treat decent people humanely, and no reflection of the quality of the film itself. The Housemaid is quite good if you can give it your full attention. Here's hoping you do.

Grade: A-