The original version of The Housemaid, directed by Kim Ki-Young, appeared in 1960, during a short window of complete creative autonomy in South Korea. The brevity of that period, which ended with a military coup the next year, has made the film all the more notable; a viscerally strange work, it’s streaked with signs of hasty liberation, telling a messy, satire-tinged horror story aimed at the country’s burgeoning middle class. Located at a heady nexus between family drama and psychosexual thriller, it recalls Samuel Fuller crossed with Nagisa Oshima.
Its remake, directed by Im Sang-soo, arrives at a similarly high time, when exposure and expectations for Korean cinema are at an all time peak. It’s a climate that’s likely to provoke a backlash against this odd concoction, which forsakes most of the subtlety and specificity of the original. It’s not a bad attempt, but it does make for something of a pallid remake of one of the country’s most respected films, retaining its core concepts while aiming for a far broader, louder indictment of society.
The main difference between the two can be explained through their settings, with the transformation from a dingy suburban house in the original to a palatial estate. The 1960 version used its small location economically, its camera slithering around corners, past windows and up and down one particularly ill-fated stairwell. The stairwell remains here, as an indicator of status and a staging ground for baroque tragedy, but in this case it’s a giant, arching structure of white marble.
Both films share the same skeleton: A family hires a new housemaid whose eventual dalliances with the husband result in a child and a bunch of unleashed craziness. In the original, the husband is the victim, corrupted and ruined by a living symbol of his upward mobility; in this remake, he’s the aggressor, a spoiled predator with an ever-present glass of red wine. His taking advantage of the poor servant is only the beginning of her problems, as she and her illegitimate child incur the wrath of this demented affluent family.
The elevation of the family from middle-class strivers to stratospherically wealthy jerks removes any trace of political specificity, but also elevates it to the chilly realm of the fairy tale. Presented as such, The Housemaid becomes less about satire then decrying the excessive power of the wealthy and the degrading institution of professional servitude, something it does with aplomb. The snow-covered expanses of the family’s gorgeous manse, captured in languid tracking shots, enforce the feel of a fable.
In this way, The Housemaid stretches beyond its handsome Hitchcockian pedigree to a world of blowzy Shakespearian intrigue, complete with a witchy mother pouring figurative poison in the young wife’s ear. It shares tonal similarities with Im’s last feature, The President’s Last Bang, an equally well-shot, sometimes amusing assassination farce that arched toward a comparable sense of absurd tragedy.
Like this remake, that film overtly courted controversy, earning some brief censorship in its depiction of the assassination of Park Chung-hee, the very leader whose coup closed off that brief moment of artistic freedom. Im has managed both of these recreations with relative skill, but he might be better off staying away from such loaded topics in the future, leaving him free to craft a movie that’s entirely his own.