The Housemaid (2010) 하녀

Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Im Sang-soo
Starring: Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jung-jae, Seo Woo, Yoon Yeo-jeong, Ahn Seo-hyeon, Park Ji-young
Theme: Family/Aging, Romance/Erotica

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 6.7/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 50%

Film Festivals:
2010 Cannes Film Festival: In Competition
2010 Toronto International Film Festival
2010 Fantastic Fest
2010 Pusan International Film Festival
2010 Sitges Film Festival
2010 Hawaii International Film Festival
2010 Philadelphia Film Festival
2010 The London-Korean Film Festival

Awards:
2010 Daejong Film Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Yoon Yeo-jeong)
2010 Critics Choice Awards: Best Music
2010 Korean Film Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Yoon Yeo-jeong)
2010 Blue Dragon Film Awars: Best Supporting Actress (Yoon Yeo-jeong) / Best Art Direction

Im Sang-soo’s The Household (2010) is a contemporary remake of the 1960 classic thriller by Kim Ki-young of the same name that was recently restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. In the half a century that has transcended between the two films, a mammoth sociological shift had taken place in South Korea. According to director Im Sang-soo who revealed in his interviews, this is the reason behind the different caste background of the families in the two films. The original takes place among the rising middle class of the 1960s, while the remake is set in a luxurious upper-class environment, a timely update that is more relatable given the rich nation today.

The maid is Eun-yi (the effervescent Jeon Do-yeon, who once won Best Actress at Cannes for her role in Secret Sunshine (2007)), hired as a servant for Hae Ra (Seo Woo) who is pregnant with twins, and her rich husband Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), with a precocious daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon). Hoon flirts with Eun-yi, enticing her with high-couture symbols like the piano—which takes on central significance in the original but remains on the sideline as a sheer prop in this remake—and they begin a sexual relationship. Hoon is horny and likes to be in control in bed, his perverse erotic fetishes shine through in a scene with him having anal sex with his very pregnant wife. He lies naked on bed with his wife on top of him upon penetration. He spreads his arms out wide in a symbolism of being in charge as Christ allegories take over, in a direct reference to the prominent image of Christ on the cross. Hoon is wine-loving and visits Eun-yi in the middle of the night in his bathrobe or underwear. Palpable sexual tension manifests, and the camera at one point of time does an extreme close-up of an intense sexual sequence that pans across the two sweaty bodies gyrating against each other as they make love. Hoon’s hunky tanned frame fills the frame as he lies on top of Eun-yi’s chaste body. The whole sequence is erotic. “I’m about to cum. Can I do it inside you?” Hoon asks.

Eun-yi remains warm with Hoon’s wife, Hae Ra, but their clandestine relationship is outed by the older maid Byeong-sik (Yoon Yeo-jeong), who sees everything that is going on in the vast premises ot the house. She struggles to hang onto her clout gained from her experience, and we know that within her warped mind of her own she fantasizes over having Hoon to herself, her jealousy shining through in her betrayal of Eun-yi, and her regret compounding that in the finale. In a story of twists and turns, Eun-yi gets pregnant, and Hae Ra realizes that her love for children means that she will never abort the baby. Thus the wife plots and scams against Eun-yi, poisoning her stash of herbal medicine that she takes everyday. A gory scene ensues, with the topdown camera causing Eun-yi to seem small as it captures the solitary bathtub in the middle of the toilet, and a naked Eun-yi bleeding from her womb. She hangs herself from the chandelier in the middle of the living room to which she once clung onto for dear life having been sabotaged by the mother-in-law, before lighting her body on fire in front of the family.

The movie is in fact split into three distinct segments, each with a strong aesthetic treatment of its own. Casting a spotlight on present-day Korea is the opening scene that uses the cinema vérité technique in capturing a suicide. We do not know the significance of this suicide, but we see it transposed against the affluent society of modern Korea with cutaways to luxury labels in a grainy shot that documents the shock surrounding the death.

The bulk of the movie that revolves around the dynamics of the house is filmed with a more matter-of-fact aesthetic, using established camera angles and framing techniques to portray the vast size of the house in contrast with the emotional shifts of the characters. The house closes in on the viewer, the walls creating a lonely claustrophobia in spite of the vastness, as the characters are seen walking through the emptiness of the house. Loneliness seems to be the price of luxury.

The final scene captures the family a few years after the tragedy that is Eun-yi’s death. The family appears to have been psychologically scarred by that moment, and the ghost of Eun-yi lives on around them. We see Hoon speaking in English throughout this scene rather than his mother tongue Korean. We note the vivid, quirky colors the scene is captured in, and the eccentricities of this surrounding is further compounded by the outfit of the family. It is Nami’s birthday, and the “Happy Birthday” song that is sung is cold, emotionless, and wintry.

It is debatable whether or not such an upgrade in social class to be more relevant is even necessary, but this is perhaps not the main cause of the rift this remake has created. While the film went to Cannes, Im Sang-soo has caused vast divides in opinion with respect to this film. Some accuse it for not being truthful and respecting of the original in terms of the motives and intentions of the characters, with some critics going as far as to claim that this film should be a standalone rather than a “remake” as it is hardly faithful to the original. The 1960 classic has gone down cinematic history for its “bold, disturbing look at lust, greed, and revenge.” (Tan, 2010), centering on the maid as the seductress of the husband. The maid was devious, wielding sexual control and ill-treating his materialistic pregnant wife and two children. Rather the modern update has the husband being the seductor of the maid in a paradigmic shift of intent and a reversal of personalities. The maid reciprocates, indeed, but the husband remains in control, wielding his power over the innocent maid. The maid also forges an unlikely bond with the child who does not judge her by her social status or background – unlike the wealthy family she works for who disapproves of her lower-class status.

References

Tan, E. (2010, October 22). Report Card: The Housemaid (2010). Retrieved November 25, 2010, from http://filmnomenon2.blogspot.com/2010/10/housemaid-2010.html

The Horse Thief (1986) 盜馬賊

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Running time: 88 minutes
Starring: Daiba, Dan Jiji, Drashi, Gaoba
Theme: Family/Death

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.3/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Film Festivals:
1988 Fribourg International Film Festival
2001 San Francisco International Film Festival

Awards:
1988 Fribourg International Film Festival – Distribution Help Award

The Horse Thief (1986) by acclaimed Chinese Fifth Generation filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang touches on the travails of Chinese minorities in a follow-up to On the Hunting Ground (1984). The ethnic minorities are given a spotlight in this movie which captures the vast plains of inner China, and in particular their faith to the Buddhism doctrine and the numerous rites and rituals that they go through so as to shun evil spirits and to bring good luck to the community. The colors are vivid, and through Tian’s lenses the tough livelihood of these ethnic minorities living in rural villages come to life. There is minimal dialogue, save for a couple of terse exchanges that goes against common perceptions of a close-knit commuity as the villagers have to fend for themselves against the course of nature, but that mirrors the empty plains of the landscape. This makes the film relatively difficult to sit through at the start as Tian Zhuangzhuang strives to set the tone. But soon we learn to empathize with the villagers, and we feel their pain as they seek a spiritual connection with God to ease them through difficulttimes. After all, in the middle of nowhere, there really is no way for salvation except the heavens. The cinematography is plain stunning, and Tian’s exploration of a lesser-known indigineous minority has earned him rave plaudits in the form of Martin Scorsese, who declared the film as his #1 favourite from the 1990s on a talkshow with acclaimed critic Roger Ebert.

The protagonist is the titular horse thief, Norbu, in his struggle to bring his family up in Tibet. He steals horses for trade and bartering for food for his family, much to the chagrin of his fellow villagers who upon catching him, banish him from the clan and curse that God would not turn a blind eye on his misdeeds. In a sign that the heavens might possibly have listened, Norbu’s son eventually dies despite him not having renounced his faith. The devastated father strives to change his ways, engaging in rituals like turning prayer wheels, ceremonial dances and so forth in a series of voyeuristic scenes that capture the process of a human being seeking divine intervention in his faith.

The skies and the worshipped deities take centrestage in this film. The villagers give all their faith and belief in the Gods above, but one cannot help but question—and pity them along the way—at whether the skies are really listening. Tian films Norbu in his normadic existence, so starved that he has to eat newly-fallen snow, the character’s devastation at the loss of his son in laying the dead body in the middle of a snow-covered meadow (41:0641:15), the establishing shot accentuating his loneliness and emptiness now that he has lost his companion. He films the actual slaughter of a sacrificial lamb (no pun intended) that Norbu sneaks up upon and slits the throat of in an offering to the heavens. This grisly scene is as realistic as it is potentially morally offensive to some religions. The unsuspecting lamb tremors, and writes agonizingly as it struggles for its last breath.

This is Tian Zhuangzhuang’s third feature film and it is one of intoxicating beauty. The movie opens with lush colors and tribal instruments blaring in the background, thereby immediately drawing myself into the emptiness of the landscape through the use of depth of field and close-ups on bells (00:56), birds (00:59) and so forth. We get a lot of still sequences of otherwise emptiness, for instance, at 07:33-07:41, 07:4207:45, 07:4607:50 and 07:5007:56. There are close-ups of Buddha, of birds feasting on dead carcasses that create an impression of empty grandiose, and of rows and rows of villagers decked in monk attire and praying by the field. The crying wails in the middle of the movie symbolizes the birth of a  baby, preceding his capture on the camera. But memories run deep, and this child is no replacement for Norbu’s loss. The movie comes full circle, with the harsh reality forcing the family to desperate means, and the final shot is one equivalent to the opening sequence in a portrayal of karma, and that what goes around, perhaps comes around.

While Tian Zhuangzhuang would go on to make more controversial movies such as The Blue Kite (1993), I sense from the lenses of his camera a form of stoic realism at capturing the lives of the minority. There hardly appears to be any script, and the fluidity of the actions and landscape aid in conveying a striking reality in his documentation of the people