I watched The Housemaid in a theater with about 15 other people. 4 walked out. One snored the entire time. You can call this film a lot of things, but boring is not one of them. The Housemaid is a melodramatic thriller. It’s pretty funny, too. And the last 15 minutes ramp it into the absurd.
Is melodrama an inherently bad thing? I consider a melodramatic film to be one that takes particularly contentious, often domestic topics (pregnancy, infidelity, etc) and treats them in a heavy-handed fashion where tears are shed, monologues are delivered and the cast generally hams it up. When I think of melodrama I think of Now, Voyager. Or Sirk using it ironically.
The Housemaid has all of these trappings. New housemaid Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon) has an affair with her employer, Hoon (Jung-Jae Lee) and gets pregnant. Hoon’s wife, Haera (Seo Woo) is pregnant herself with twins. Eun-yi has a close relationship with Hoon and Haera’s daughter Nami (Seo-Hyeon Ahn) and a wary relationship with Byung-sik (Yeo-Jong Yun), the older, practiced maid.
The melodrama is exactly what you’d expect: should Eun-yi have the child? Will Haera find out about the affair? Will Eun-yi be bribed into an abortion? The list goes on. But director Sang-soo Im makes the melodramatic elements work in his favor. Hoon plays a dramatic piano throughout the film and these tropes start to work in similar fashion to his own dramatic flourishes, wherein his playing oscillates between the histrionic and the toned down. Im is very much aware of 40s soap so when a character delivers what might be a loaded line (“It’s my baby!”) instead of the General Hospital pause and series of close-ups that might ensue, and instead of the shouting match that is impending, the reactions of the characters are actually very much downplayed. The film therefore plays out like a series of melodramatic situations without the melodramatic action. Quite an interesting mix.
What makes this more complex is how the film opens. The first scene – a prologue in that it feels very separate from the rest of the action – is visually and structurally different from all else. The handheld camera, which is on display elsewhere, here seems more frantic and unsure of itself. The frames are intentionally “un-composed.” The color palette is very desaturated. It actually feels like video as opposed to the 35mm that follows. The action itself is dominated by cutaway shots to passers-by in the Korean downtown. A woman – we never get a clear view – jumps off of a balcony, committing suicide.
There’s an obvious strategy at work here that Im is not alone in employing: begin with an extremely dramatic, climactic moment, pull the audience in, and then explain that event. The problem here is that Im doesn’t really fully explain it. Is it Eun-yi? Haera? Someone else entirely? The former seems the most likely, but the ending of the film, instead of bringing everything full circle and to a close, really works against the prologue, further confusing the issue.
SPOILERS here: The end of the film gets really crazy. Everything’s out in the air. Eun-yi is fired. She’s had a poison-induced abortion. Haera has given birth to healthy twins. Eun-yi breaks back into the house. She stands atop the balcony and, in front of everyone, hangs herself from the chandelier. Then things start to get really nuts. She says “Fire,” and suddenly bursts into flames. The family runs out. Her ignited body swings lifelessly. Cut to black.
Fade back up into the epilogue and what is most certainly a dream or hallucinatory sequence. Haera, Nami and Hoon are outside. Hoon is speaking English. They are seated on very plush, expensive-looking red chairs. Haera, counter to her character up to this point, grabs a microphone and starts singing a Marilyn Monroe “Happy Birthday” to Nami. There are two new housemaids. Nami walks away, looks beyond the camera, and the film cuts out.
What is going on? Because of these strange traits, it’s impossible not to at least consider this a dream. It’s certainly my interpretation. So then…when did the dream begin? At the fade? Before that and when Eun-yi suddenly burst into flames? Even earlier? And what about the beginning of the film?
My best interpretation: post-abortion Eun-yi commits suicide (first scene). From abortion on, much of the movie is filtered through Nami’s and Byung-sik’s eyes – those closer to Eun-yi and, in the case perhaps of Nami, the one who will one day exact revenge (read: her final gaze at/past camera).
Or this can all be much less complex. The beginning can be read as simple foreshadow: many of the bystanders are more curious than concerned. It’s a random woman who dies. This is the indifference. Eun-yi tries the same thing. And at the end, the family is still indifferent. An overarching comment on society – or the divide between the haves and have-nots. There are, after all, frequent comments along the “it must be nice” train of thought, sprinkled throughout the film, and made largely by Byung-sik.
Not surprisingly, this film reminded me of the excellent 2009 film The Maid by Sebastian Silva. Im’s film is much more pessimistic in its look at the life of servitude and all the condescension and humility it carries with it.