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Hanyo (The Housemaid)

Posted by martinteller on October 13, 2012

Dong-shik (Kim Jin-kyu) is a music teacher for young women working in a factory.  His wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo) slaves away at the sewing machine to help afford their new house and the support of their rather bratty little boy (Ahn Sung-kee, who would go on to and continues to have a long and thriving career in Korean movies) and crippled daughter (Eom Aeng-ran).  She has another baby on the way.  The work proves to be too much for her, and they hire a maid (Lee Eun-shim, whose character is enigmatically never mentioned by name) to help out.  The maid appears off-kilter, and she soon develops an obsession for Dong-shik.  He succumbs to the beautiful young woman’s temptations, and that single night of misguided passion will send increasingly traumatic aftershocks throughout the household.

I don’t know why I waited so long to see this movie — I’ve been wanting to for at least 6 or 7 years — but I’m glad I finally got around it.  This is melodrama cranked up to 11, insanely over-the-top, often to the point of hilarious black comedy.  The situation gets crazier and crazier, tenser and tenser, scarier and scarier.  The tale’s moralizing is done with director Kim Ki-young’s tongue firmly planted in his cheek, and the fourth-wall-breaking coda feels more like a wink than a wag of the finger.  Lee is a powerhouse in the title role, completely unhinged and yet strangely sympathetic (at least I thought so… apparently in its initial run the audience often screamed “Kill the bitch!” at her).  The remainder of the cast can’t help but be overshadowed by her, but they all perform admirably as well, giving themselves up to the melodramatic spirit.

The cinematography is excellent throughout, particularly in the use of inventive framing and tracking shots.  Kim utilizes the space superbly, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere (almost all of the film takes place in the tiny house) and accentuating divisions of space.  The maid is often seen peering through windows… in some cases, providing the film’s most jolting moments as she invades private space with her penetrating gaze.  The music and sound design matches the intensity of the narrative, most effective of all is the maid’s diegetic atonal banging on the piano.

It’s a film so campy that it’s hard to take seriously, but so intense that you get lost in it, swept up in it anyway.  It’s shocking in ways that couldn’t have been pulled off in 1960 Hollywood.  The high quality of the craftsmanship and the thrill of the psychosexual shenanigans on display make this quite an experience.  This is reportedly Kim’s best — certainly his most famous — but I’ll be checking out at least one or two others.  Rating: Very Good (85)


5 Responses to “Hanyo (The Housemaid)”

  1. Have you seen the remake? Do you have plans to? I have never seen the original, but I’m curious to do so; I thought the remake was fantastic. I’m curious if the final scene is similar in each, especially with your comment about the fourth-wall breaking.

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