Reviewed at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival
Korean writer-director Im Sang-soo’s film is inspired by a classic thriller made 50 years ago by the great Kim Ki-Young. Whether that film itself derived somehow from the same novel that provided the source material for the ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ films made first by Jean Renoir and then by Luis Buñuel, I’ve been unable to ascertain, but certainly all the main characters in Im’s film might be said, as per Renoir, to have their reasons – even if their behaviour may at times be deceitful, destructive and deadly.
Of the five, the most morally ‘innocent’ is surely the titular nanny, Eun-yi, hired by elderly housekeeper Byung-sik to help out in the mansion inhabited by rich businessman Hoon, his pregnant wife Hae-ra and their young daughter. All goes smoothly until Hoon decides to exercise droit de seigneur with Eun-yi; the divorcee goes along with it, and the older maid, suspecting her new colleague may be pregnant, informs Hae-ra’s mother of the affair, at which point events take a perilous turn for the worse.
‘The Housemaid’ is undoubtedly genre fare rather than an art movie, but it’s mostly an enjoyable suspense drama, well acted, pleasingly paced and possessed of enough subtle twists to hold the attention. The play with audience sympathies highlights the influence of Hitchcock, and one might even make modest claims for it as an acerbic commentary both on class divisions and on the corrosive effects of double standards on women’s lives and solidarity within a strictly patriarchal society.
The problem is that when vengeance finally raises its murderous head, as we’ve long known it would, it doesn’t make for as effective dramatic climax as it should have; for all the ending’s theatricality, I for one was left asking myself, ‘Is that it?’ While it was a relief not to have the film descend into the kind of gross-out grotesquerie favoured by, say, Park Chan-wook, the final ten minutes didn’t deliver the kind of surprise or spectacle that would stick in the mind. A pity, given some of the power-games that had preceded them.