Well…this movie aged a little weirdly in only eight years…uh…
The movie starts out in the big bustling city. Everyone is doing something. Working, hanging out, exercising, playing. None of them seem to notice the woman standing on the edge of a building until she hits the ground. People flock to see, some with their cameras out. Eun-yi, who had just arrived at work nearby, is curious, but not enough to go immediately. When she does get around to checking out the scene, everyone is gone and pretty much everything is cleaned up. The last moments of the woman’s life went unnoticed and her death would eventually be erased. But, nevermind that, on with the story.
Eun-yi is a poor, working-class woman in her late thirties. She lives in a small apartment and sharing a bed with her friend and co-worker. Apparently, however, she has been hired to work as a maid and nanny to a very rich couple. From her cramped apartment in the busy city to a large, sparse, and quite house, it is a huge contrast.
Eun-yi first meets Miss Cho, the original housemaid who shows Eun-yi the ropes. Then she meets Hae-ra, a very pregnant trophy wife in her twenties whom Eun-yi must aid in physical therapy. Then she meets Nami, Hae-ra’s young daughter, whom Eun-yi immediately bonds with. Finally, she meets Hoon, the patriarch of the family, who is actually pretty much the same age as Eun-yi. There are also Hoon’s two bodyguards, but they are ultimately unimportant in this movie.
Miss Cho is somewhat chummy with Eun-yi, teaching her the ways of the household with cynical wit. It turns out that her son has become a prominent prosecutor, yet she has continued to toil as a housemaid for decades for reasons that appear to be connected to Hae-ra’s family. Hae-ra is civil and not entirely unfriendly towards Eun-yi, but seems rather detached. Nami is rather serious for a young girl, which actually compliments Eun-yi’s rather sunny nature. It is unclear whether Nami really needs a nanny, but it is expected and she seems to appreciate Eun-yi if nothing else. Hoon comes and goes, but the world seems to revolve around him. When he is home, he tends to like playing the piano, just lounging around listening to European Classical music, and…
The family goes on some trip to another house and Eun-yi comes along to play with Nami. That night, Hae-ra and Hoon try to have sex, but it does not really work out, maybe because Hae-ra cannot stop talking about having more kids. Hae-ra decides to give Hoon oral sex, which I suppose works better, but it turns out that Hoon is not totally satisfied. As implied in an early scene when he passively switches between looking at Hae-ra and Eun-yi, he has decided to indulge himself with the help. And it begins.
This movie is sort of a remake of a classic Korean film called The Housemaid that was made in 1960. I say “sort of” because it seems to be less of an update and more of a response. The original film was about a middle class family that hires an eccentric maid who seduces the husband and tears the family apart in the process. It was controversial, not just for its sexual undertones, but also for its cynical take on South Korea’s modern middle class ideals and for depicting the family unit as so fragile as to fall apart when threatened. Personally, I found it a little hammy, but I can appreciate the power that it had at the time.
The 2010 remake tells the story primarily from the point of view of the housemaid. Far from the crazed and possessive mistress of chaos from the original, Eun-yi is rather passive, obedient to a fault and hopelessly naïve for her age. She is not necessarily an innocent victim, but is simply unable to understand the ramifications of the affair or what might happen to her. Both her friend and Miss Cho try to warn her, but she appears to ignore the severity. When Hoon gives her a check to keep her quiet, it is implied that she mistakes it as a gift of love; the idea of bringing it up with seemingly Hae-ra never occurred to her. When I first saw this movie several years ago, I had trouble pinning down her character and wondered if Eun-yi had no idea of the consequences of what was going on. Now, I realize the possibility that she may have known, but had to convince herself and others that nothing was wrong due to having no real power to stop it.
In comparing the two movies, many say that the remake falls short simply because the storyline and theme have become clichéd and stale. Whereas the original was about the destruction of the middle class family due to internal weaknesses, the remake was all about how evil rich people are. A rich family treating their domestic servant in less than legal ways? Ho hum. The original film had a family struggling to maintain itself in the face of pure chaos while the remake had the family pouncing on any disturbance of order. In that sense, no, the film breaks little new ground. That said, I am less interested in its treatment of class than I am in its treatment of family and gender.
During the nearly fifty years between the original and the remake, there have been several Korean and Asian movies that have dared to paint the family as something problematic, but the family is still considered one of the greatest and most basic building blocks in Asian society, so those types of movies often get treated as scandalous. The differences between the Asian family and the Western family may be less numerous than people may claim, but the idea of criticizing the family unit holds more power in Asia than it is now in the West. In the original, the family was in danger; in this movie, it is the family that is the danger. When Eun-yi unwittingly exposes a potential weakness in the family, elements within almost immediately act to neutralize her and end up making her life miserable and negating her existence as a person. Her one decision to openly defy her employers leads to worse retribution, which threatens to drive her insane. The very last scene of the movie, which had initially perplexed me as well as a lot of other viewers, can be seen as an extreme coping technique. I won’t spoil what happens, but you might have to stretch a little to interpret what is going and why. Some may prefer the original for giving the housemaid some level of overt and transgressive agency, but the remake is probably a little more true to life.
It is notable that the household is not immediately hostile towards Eun-yi. Hae-ra acts nice towards Eun-yi because she sees no reason to be otherwise until she becomes convinced that Eun-yi poses a challenge. Perhaps it is also Eun-yi is significantly older than her that Hae-ra does not consider her a threat at first. But it is not about Hoon getting someone younger, but being allowed everything. The idea of Eun-yi resisting his sexual demands may or may not have occurred to her, but it definitely did not occur to him either. As Hae-ra’s mother said, he had always gotten everything he wanted.
Oh, that’s right, I had not mentioned Hae-ra’s mother. Mi Hee is introduced about halfway through the movie, when Miss Cho tells her that she suspects that Eun-yi may be pregnant. Mi Hee has had no interactions with Eun-yi up to this point, but her immediate response is to treat Eun-yi as a threat. It is Mi Hee who initiates the plans to make Eun-yi’s life a living hell, not because Eun-yi had sex with Hoon, but due to the mere possibility that Eun-yi may be pregnant with a child who may eventually pose a threat to her grandchildren’s inheritance. Her personal connection to Hoon’s family is unclear, but she knows their dark secrets and she wants in. It is also unclear how old she is, though the actress is maybe four years older than the actors playing Hoon and Eun-yi. Whether those four years would have made it awkward for her to marry Hoon herself, she seems just as satisfied to manipulate her daughter and encourage her rage against Eun-yi.
While there is some degree of anger against Hoon for straying on the part of both Hae-ra and Mi Hee, the bulk of their actions are against Eun-yi. Hoon is power personified and the consequences of confronting him need not be stated. In fact, they are never stated. He doesn’t threaten. He doesn’t intimidate. He doesn’t actively throw his weight around. He doesn’t lash out when challenged. He doesn’t need to. He just is. He does whatever. Or he doesn’t, whatever; he doesn’t care. He is confident that he will get what he wants, if not now, then in a few hours. It is the women in his life who scramble, scheme, struggle, hurt, and fight. Because they have to. He glides in and out of the move, casually leaving scandal in his wake without a thought to what the women are doing and seems to be utterly unaware of the damage that he has so casually caused. He may be as naïve as Eun-yi sometimes seems to be, and can remain so by emerging from everything almost completely unscathed.
It is notable that, aside from the opening scene, the two insignificant bodyguards are the only real noticeable other men in the movie. Miss Cho has a son who is an attorney or something, but he doesn’t appear in the story and his existence seems to be there just to contrast with how his mother is doing. The original movie included an adolescent son as part of the family, but this movie has only the promise of twin baby boys. Even the majority of the smaller one-off roles in the family, which could have been played by men, are played by women. This could be seen as a yay for feminism or it could be said to emphasize the singular point of patriarchal power as personified by Hoon. Without him, all of the other women would be nothing. That is why they protect his transgressions and go after Eun-yi instead. He is really the center of the universe here. The sexy vibe of the movie may undercut the message that this scenario is bad and seem like it is fetishizing the exploitation, but…uh…yeah, I got nothing.
There is a sense of “what could have been” with this movie, given that it went through a major rewrite before hitting the screen. Perhaps in a bitterly ironic twist, it was the male director’s rewriting that led the female writer to publicly quit. Supposedly, the initial script would have been more wordy and witty. Maybe this would have fleshed out the characters, particularly Eun-yi; yet, would more dialogue have ruined the atmosphere of the movie? Some have speculated that it could have, but we don’t actually know. Perhaps it would have de-emphasized the sensual vibe of the whole thing and emphasize the cruel abuse of the power imbalance. I don’t know. Maybe that is for another remake. And, as certain social changes are going on in South Korea and its film industry, maybe one will happen. Until then, there is still this one.
WTF ASIA 17: Cock and Bull (China: 2016, approx. 110 minutes)
Free on Amazon Prime
WTF ASIA 18: Linda Linda Linda (Japan: 2005, approx. 115 minutes)