Im Sang-soo, The Housemaid, 2010, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 106 minutes. Left: Byung-sik (Youn Yuh-jung). Right: Eun-yi and Nami (Jeon Do-youn and Ahn Seo-hyeon).


IM SANG-SOO’S THE HOUSEMAID, a remake of Kim Ki-young’s 1960 classic of the same title, begins with a narrative and aesthetic tease. In a masterful opening sequence set on a busy urban street, Im’s handheld camera roams freely among the town’s inhabitants, the jittery cinematography and rapid editing mirroring the frenetic pace of city life. Among the denizens is a woman positioned on the edge of a balcony, poised to jump, but given no more weight by Im’s camera than the other figures. When she finally leaps to her death, a few curiosity seekers gawk, while others continue with their daily business, untroubled, placing leaflets on cars or cutting fish in a restaurant.

The film then doesn’t so much rewind as start over, with the jarred viewer left to ponder the opening’s (non)place in the accompanying narrative. The remainder of the film, which takes place almost entirely in the mansion where the young housemaid of the title begins her employment, unfolds at a far more measured pace. Trading the handheld work for more carefully composed cinematography befitting upper-crust stateliness, Im introduces notes of uncertainty by complicating the film’s visual style through odd, seemingly unmotivated angles and employing rack focus to reveal characters surreptitiously watching the action in the background.

The Housemaid is a horror movie about how the rich take care of their problems and how divisions of class and sexual power make enemies of potential allies. As Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn), a young woman two parts naïf and one part seductress, starts a new job working for a wealthy womanizer and his pregnant wife, Im’s camera quickly sexualizes her. Before long the film’s objective gaze gives way to subjective shots from Eun-yi’s boss Hoon’s (Lee Jung-jae) point of view. Soon, the two are having an affair (in which Eun-yi is largely complicit). But when Eun-yi becomes pregnant, Hoon’s domineering mother-in-law begins a series of attempts at forced abortion designed to look like accidents. Hoon’s wife, equally screwed over by Hoon, evinces a brief moment of sympathy for the maid, suggesting a possible compact between these two victims, but before long she’s swept up in the imperatives of preserving appearances. The film plays the ensuing escalation with a touch of campy knowingness, with the startling, fiery penultimate image bringing about an appropriately near-apocalyptic conclusion.

Andrew Schenker

The Housemaid opens Friday, January 21 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center in New York.