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  • Ravi Swami

"The Housemaid", Dir: Kim Ki-Young, 1960

Korean cinema is a bit of a mystery for me with only the yet-to-watch "Kaiju" / "Giant Monster" genre film "Pulgasari" provoking any curiosity and I even overlooked the 2019 Oscar winning "Parasite" directed by Bong Joon-Ho since its' theme seemed quite dark and disturbing, besides the fact that I had no context in which to place Korean films.

Kim Ki-Young's 1960 film "The Housemaid" is cited by Bong Joon-Ho as being a major influence on the theme and tone of "Parasite" and the recent release of the film on both Mubi and Criterion Channel as part of Martin Scorcese's "World Cinema Project", whose mission is to restore lost classics of world cinema, means that the film benefits from extensive restoration efforts, something most evident in the reinstating of missing scenes using trailer footage, often with overlaid text that had to be digitally removed.

In terms of a viewing experience this means that some of the film appears to be derived from original negative and the rest has suffered from degradation, but this by no means reduces the impact of a film that has been described as a horror film, though it is in fact a morality tale taken to extreme limits in a way that makes it stand out from similar films of period.

For example, Pietro Germi's "Divorce Italian Style" is fundamentally a morality tale played for comedy and black humour and this film could not be described as a comedy by any stretch of the imagination, despite the commonality of the theme of the fall-out from marital infidelity.

In terms of tone, Scorcese mentions the writing of Edgar Allan Poe for the oppressive atmosphere and the sense that the characters are on an unstoppable trajectory of destruction but perhaps a film like "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" might offer a better frame of reference for a story about an unfolding domestic horror that also features rats !

The plot concerns a piano teacher, "Mr Kim", who teaches piano to female factory workers during breaks in their routine and is consequently the object of lust for some of the young women, who consider him strikingly handsome even though they know that he is married to a seamstress with two small children and another on the way.

Urged to transgress, one of the women, "Miss Cho", asks her friend to draft a love letter to Kim that they slide under the lid of the piano at the start of a lesson. However, far from achieving the desired result, Mr Kim interrupts the class and takes the letter to a supervisor who then summons the letter writer and then promptly suspends her while her friend, the instigator, gets off free.

The women are later shocked to hear that the suspended woman has left her job in shame and has attempted to take her own life as a result.

With the additional humiliation of being slighted by Mr Kim combined with the fact that she still has a crush on him, Miss Cho visits him at home in order to take private piano lessons, which he agrees to conduct since it would bring much-needed additional income to the family to cover house extension projects and for the new addition to his family, however it becomes clear that Mr Kim is struggling to resist his feelings for his attractive young student and makes this very clear.

Angered by the rejection, Miss Cho tears her own clothing to make it appear as if Mr Kim had attempted to force himself on her, when he demands that she stop flirting openly with him.

Determined to take revenge, Miss Cho notes Mr Kim's desire to hire a housemaid to take the strain off his wife, who besides being pregnant works day and night as a seamstress to make ends meet and cannot keep the house clean or manage her unruly young son who delights in taunting his crippled older sister.

It helps at this point to describe the working conditions of female factory workers in Korea at the time, often single women, who lived in shared dormitories that were part of the factories they worked in.

Miss Cho shares her dorm' with "Myung-Sook", a cleaner at the factory, and she suggests she apply for the job of a housemaid for Mr Kim and his family as part of a subterfuge to get him in trouble and to ruin his reputation, which Sook agrees to do.

It would be easy to describe Sook as a femme fatale or sexual predator capable of manipulating men and when we first see her she is smoking, a signal to the audience that she has embraced Western ways and is therefore of somewhat loose moral character.

Sook is introduced to Mr Kim and she is immediately put to work after being shown her accommodation in the half-built extension of his family home, but she uses the time to rifle through the kitchen cupboards where she notes a bottle of rat-poison and then finds a rat which she promptly batters to death with a rolling pin before presenting it to her horrified employer and his family.

Mr Kim orders her to lace a bowl of rice with rat poison to deter any further pests in the kitchen while his children look on suspiciously at this unwelcome guest to their home.

On one rainy afternoon Sook spies Mr Kim rebuffing Miss Cho as she stands on a balcony outside and decides to make her move in seducing her employer and some time later she confides in Mrs Kim that she is pregnant, forcing Mr Kim to confess to his horrified wife who must now face the prospect of losing everything they have worked for because of this indiscretion.

Mrs Kim decides to take things in hand and encourages Sook to lose the child by deliberately throwing herself off a stair to her room but by now Sook has fallen in love with Mr Kim, who now feels trapped by the subterfuge.

This is only the beginning of an escalation of events as Sook becomes increasingly unstable and possessive toward Mr Kim, blackmailing him by telling him she will expose him to the factory authorities and risk losing his job, and following the birth of his third child she demands that Mr Kim share her bed from now on.

Sook decides to poison Mr Kim's wife who she sees as an obstacle to her future life with Mr Kim and at one point threatens to harm their new born child and when Mr Kim's mischievous son rumbles her plan, she pushes him down the stairs and kills him.

By now trapped by the manipulative and mentally unstable Sook, Mr Kim and his wife have no choice but to give in to her demands and matters take a turn for the worse when Mrs Kim decides that the only option is to poison Sook, but this is foiled when Sook admits that she has swapped the poison for sugar water, since she anticipated such an outcome and threatens to tell the police that Mrs Kim has attempted murder.

When Miss Cho appears wanting to resume piano lessons, Sook sees her as a rival for Mr Kim's affections and first threatens and then stabs her with a kitchen knife before she escapes with her life.

Mr Kim realises that this life has become a living hell due to his affair with the housemaid Sook and after he accuses his hard-working wife of only being interested in money and comforts like a television or new cooker, Sook convinces him to join her in a suicide pact to end their miserable situation, which he reluctantly agrees to by drinking water laced with rat poison.

Sook dies first and Mr Kim drags himself to his wife who has fallen asleep from exhaustion at her sewing machine before he dies in her arms, leaving Mrs Kim, her crippled daughter and her young newborn son who we hear crying on the soundtrack before an ending that reveals that the preceding events are nothing more than Mr Kim speculating on the possible outcome of hiring a housemaid just as Sook appears with a tray of tea. Mrs Kim dismisses the girl while telling the bemused Mr Kim that she would never allow such a thing to occur in her home.

In the film's final moments Mr Kim turns to the audience, effectively breaking the third wall, and tells every man of the dangers of following their baser instincts, suggesting in the process that heaven or hell are states of being rather than abstract concepts and are of our own making, depending upon the decisions that we make.

Kim Ki-Young establishes "heaven" at the film's opening where he depicts a scene of family harmony and bliss and then chooses to focus on the two children playing "cats cradle" for what could be longer than necessary in another director's hands but is clearly a pointed reference to the notion of manipulation and a web of deceit as spun by the vengeful Sook to wreak destruction on Mr Kim out of her envy and erotic obsession.

Religious faith in Korea is split between Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity in various forms, with Catholicism being dominant, and while there is no overt religious subtext in the film apart from a point where Sook talks about living with the ghosts of the dead that refers to pre-Christian animism incorporated into Korean culture, it's easy to imagine that the moral tone underlined by the ending ensures that the film is more than simply a melodramatic shocker that would have resonated with the audience, though Young ramps up this aspect with the claustrophobic atmosphere of the family home, thunderstorms and torrential rain and an unrelenting piling of horror upon horror.

"The Housemaid" has been described as one of the most influential Korean films of the post-war era and it invites further investigation of Korean films before more recent entries were sprung on public consciousness outside of the country, most notably with Bong Joon-Ho's "Parasite".

"The Housemaid", Dir: Kim Ki-Young, 1960

Mubi & Criterion Channel


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