By Brian Lafferty
February 18. 2011 (San Diego) – Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, once said, “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script.” Too bad Korean director Sang-soo Im didn’t heed this advice when he wrote The Housemaid.
A remake of a 1960 Korean film of the same name, it is about a young, innocent woman named Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon). She is employed by a wealthy family composed of a businessman, his pregnant wife, and their young daughter. The naïve Eun-yi and the husband have an affair. When she becomes pregnant, tragedy unfolds.
Up until Eun-yi becomes pregnant, Im has a firm grip on the story. The problem isn’t its predictability. It’s what happens after the revelation. The movie becomes completely lost. It has no idea where it wants to go for at least a reel or two until it regains some focus towards the end. At one point I wrote in my notes, “I don’t care how it ends anymore. I just want it to end.”
Even worse than the botched story structure are the severely underwritten characters. I felt Im was attempting to create mysterious characters with no background. This device works if it has a purpose and if the characters are given plenty of dimension. Spaghetti Western auteur Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood did it with three films in the 1960s. After viewing all three we don’t even know the name of The Man with No Name, let alone his past. Yet he is given traits that intrigue us and make us want to follow him.
It doesn’t work at all in The Housemaid. The characters, mysterious as they are, lack these qualities. This isn’t apparent at first; it took until after the first forty minutes had passed that I recognized this flaw. They are so devoid of any unique traits that I found it difficult to get involved any further in the story. All the suspense present in the beginning of the film gets sucked away.
That isn’t to say he gets nothing right. The first forty minutes contain suspense in every shot. His actors contribute extremely subtle performances. Their shy and uneasy facial expressions lend the film an unsettling feel. Even simple conversations such as Eun-yi asking the longtime maid why she allows her employer to call her “Madam” create suspense.
When I took a cinematography course at California State University, Fullerton one thing I learned was that any camera movement needs to motivated. There is plenty of camera movement in this picture but it is never autonomous. Im uses slow, deliberate camera movements and zooms to create constant uneasiness.
The cinematography contains a noirish look, with plenty of dark tones and shadows. It makes the house brooding. It isn’t obvious, nor is it overwhelming, but it manages to convey the dark nature of the household.
Sang-soo Im has crafted a very stylish, yet unpretentious, film. I believe his devotion to the visuals resulted in this movie’s undoing. This picture may look good but the script needed housekeeping.
The Housemaid is currently playing at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas. In Korean with English subtitles. Not rated.