In the lurid 1960 thriller The Housemaid, Korean director Ki-young Kim used the story of an over-extended middle-class family forced to hire a servant to help with daily routines as a cautionary tale of the dangers of materialism and bourgeois values. In his sleek, high-toned remake, director Im San-soo turns the predator into a victim. This time Euny (Jeon Do-yeon), the dutiful maid and nanny is exploited by her rich employers, although she isn’t entirely innocent, either.
Euny is slaving away at a street restaurant and living a hardscrabble life when she is offered the opportunity to improve her situation considerably by moving in with the wealthy businessman Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) and his wife Hera (Seo Woo), who is pregnant with twins. Euny — whose work is meticulously supervised by the family’s elder housekeeper, the dour Byung-sik (Youn Yuh-jung) — is assigned to tend Hera’s every need and take care of the couple’s young daughter. Everything goes well until Hoon, who is attracted to Euny at first sight, stumbles into her room one night with a bottle of wine and initiates some one-on-one action, which is mutually enjoyed.
A few romps later, Hoon is rewarding Euny with a bonus check, which she eagerly accepts, either oblivious to or unmindful of the fact that she has essentially been rendered a prostitute. The lonely Euny believes there is something going on between her and Hoon that transcends mere sex, and the movie doesn’t condemn or mock her delusions. Nor does The Housemaid make a villain of the adulterous but otherwise responsible Hoon, whose behavior is excused with a boys-will-be-boys shrug. Instead, Im saves his wrath for Hera and, especially, her impossibly beautiful, demonic mother (Park Ji-young), whose reactions on learning of the affair are reprehensible.
The Housemaid doesn’t aim for much social commentary or subtext, other than the hackneyed observation that the rich can be immoral. But the movie still works as an erotically charged thriller: The graphic sex scenes radiate an uncommon heat, and Im can pull off a hugely effective shock when he wants to. The Housemaid also doubles as a character study of a woman — the elder Byung-sik — who detests her lot in life but has learned to live with it in silent resentment until she realizes she no longer can. Pay attention to her: In many ways, she could be the film’s eponymous heroine. Euny may be the central figure, but this flighty, potentially dangerous young woman is too empty a vessel to merit an entire movie.
Cast: Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jung-jae, Youn Yuh-jung, Seo Woo, Park Ji-young, Ahn Seo-hyun.
Writer-director: Im Sang-soo.
Producer: Jason Chae.
An IFC Films studios release. Running time: 107 minutes. In Korean with English subtitles. Vulgar language, nudity, explicit sex, strong adult themes. Plays Friday-Sunday in Miami-Dade only: Cosford Cinema.