[THE HOUSEMAID opens in Cleveland Friday March 25th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]
Review by Ben Lybarger
Eun-yi (played by Jeon Do-youn) is hired as a nanny for a rich family, and initially the elder housemaid Byung-sik (Youn Yuh-jung) treats her with a cold indifference bordering on contempt. As their relationship progresses, however, we get the sense that she sees in Eun-yi the beginnings of her own wasted life of servitude, which she often describes as “revolting, ugly, nauseating, and shameless.” Byung-sik actually undergoes the most compelling transformation in the film, as she slowly begins to reject her degrading role as a loyal servant to a family she detests, and which views “commoners” like herself as something less than human, existing only to raise their children and scrub their underwear.
The narcissistic master of the house, Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), having long enjoyed a life of privileged indulgence, promptly uses his position as head of household to artlessly seduce the innocent, but not quite reluctant, Eun-yi. Their affair results in her pregnancy, which Byung-sik realizes before even Eun-yi does, and quickly informs Hoon’s mother-in-law, Mi-hee (Park Ji-young) of the situation. This sets in motion a sinister plot by Mi-hee and her daughter, Hae-ra (Seo Woo), to force Eun-yi to abort her baby. Mi-hee tells her daughter, who is upset over the infidelity, not to resent her cheating husband, but to “let him sleep around all he wants” because if she endures such behavior, she will eventually become a revered matriarch and “live like a queen.”
Playing the wife of an unflappable egotist, Seo Woo makes it easy to read Hae-ra’s tortured ambivalence about this traditional route to feminine power, which is something you’d expect from an upper-class breeder snuggling up with Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” as bed-time reading material. Regardless, Eun-yi bears the brunt of Hae-ra’s wrath as Hae-ra succumbs to the allure of her deferred status and yields to her mother’s guidance. Together their guile and cruelty not only causes the psychological unraveling of Eun-yi, but also provides a tipping point for Byung-sik.
While rich thematically, the film’s cinematography is also an understated achievement on a grand scale, with Korea’s intimate streets and austere countryside beautifully providing tangible context for events transpiring within the orderly artifice of the mansion. In the end, though, THE HOUSEMAID’s success hinges on its performances, since it is easy to imagine how mawkish and overblown such material might become in less capable hands. Instead, even the outrageous is often played with a nuance and depth that lends some credibility. That said, the ending does feel more like a socio-political statement than the plausible evolution of its characters, leaving me with my own mixed feelings. Nevertheless, it does reach a definite climax, coupled with a somber resolution not likely to wash out of your memory any time soon. 3 out of 4 stars.