Aside from title and basic premise, Im Sang-soo’s remake of The Housemaid bears little resemblance to the original. The film thus deserves to be regarded on its own terms, and not as an unworthy bastardization of its source material the way frame-for-frame remakes often are. Im has seen fit to replace the psychodrama of Kim Ki-young’s 1960 film—widely regarded as a benchmark of South Korean cinema—with a restrained quietude befitting its subject matter. Too, the almost parable-like quality of Kim’s cautionary tale on the dangers of infidelity (as well as an aging man’s natural inclination toward it) is gone in favor of a meditation on the ways in which the powers that be tend to stay in power, while the helpless and downtrodden shall helpless remain.
Perhaps the most telling scene in the original (at least in terms of the relatively few ways in which this version is a throwback to it) is of two children playing cat’s cradle while the opening credits roll. The constricting world of Im’s Housemaid is a closed system, one in which Hoon and Hae-ra (the man and wife of the house) make the rules and Eun-yi, their newly-hired housemaid, is forced to play by them. While the namesake of the original was a maniacal instigator, Eun-yi is more of a hapless victim forced into a situation beyond her control—which isn’t to say that she’s blameless, but rather that her naivete makes her easily taken advantage of, and Hoon is all to happy to oblige. The resultant film is quick to show its characters’ skin but less inclined to explore what lies beneath it: what makes these people the way they are? we’re left wondering. Im offers little insight on this front, instead asking his audience to take his word for it that these people are the way they are and that’s all that matters.
As Eun-yi walks through the cavernous mansion in which she now works, a melancholic score not unlike that of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love often rings out; also, one of the first things that attracts her to Hoon is his rendition of Beethoven’s Seventh on the piano. (That he plays piano at all is one of few commonalities between this and the original; poison is another.) And though it is Hoon who carelessly impregnates Eun-yi, the film’s true antagonists are his wife and mother-in-law: it is they who hatch a plot against Eun-yi while giving Hoon a free pass. This is simply the price of being married to a wealthy man, they reason, and so all the blame is laid on Eun-yi. Hae-ra and her mother will stop short of nothing in their desperate attempt to maintain their status, including and especially the complete ruination of Eun-yi.
As all this happens, the more experienced Ms. Cho—who seems to have worked for Hoon and Hae-ra for much of her life—watches on. This is, in a sense, her house, and nothing goes on in it without her knowing—especially not a scandal such as this. Ms. Cho is perhaps the only character who is not clearly drawn as either this or that; rather, she inhabits a moral grey area for most of the film, finally teetering toward one edge in its closing moments. It’s clear that this is the first stand she has ever made while in the Hoon and Hae-ra’s employ (this no doubt being a large part of the reason for her longevity), and the breaking point their actions bring her to make Ms. Cho The Housemaid‘s most in-depth and intriguing character.
If the film suffers from anything, it’s heavy-handedness in the delivery of its message and a lack of depth in its characterizations. There’s never much of an attempt to humanize Eun-yi’s employers or understand what makes them this way; that they are evil and soulless due to their wealth is meant to be self-evident. Were that the case, this might have been a great film. Pity, then, that the surface of The Housemaid—which is all we’re given access to—doesn’t reveal more.