Tuesday, June 4, 2013

South Korea's Harrowing Jewel: The Housemaid (1960)

Upon suggestion by my ever asian cinema-curious roomie, I decided to at long last catch the rarely seen in the west Kim Ki-young film, Hanyo (AKA- The Housemaid). And to consider this as seminal might be understating it by an impressive mile. While on the surface, this is a film that feels borderline primitive, and even quaint scene-wise, there is something utterly punishing and prophetic here that solidifies the film's reputation. On one level, a caustic melodrama involving the plight of a factory music teacher's family after hiring a mysterious newcomer to handle their domestic duties. While on the other, it is a darkly funny satire of South Korea's burgeoning upper middle class complete with technological terrors, desperate women, and an even more desperate populace.

What initially leapt out to me about this film, was the lush, often decadent composition laid forth for a black and white Korean film made in the 1960s. Ki-young's attention to set detail, placement of objects, characters, and even lighting predates and clearly laid the foundation for well over a decade of phenomenally articulate filmmaking from a country long considered a non-entity in international cinema circles. There are plenty of visual choices here that predate the works of Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and even Kim Ji-woon in their almost obsessive symbological drive. Influences ranging from Hitchcock to Honda, there is a confident, painterly feel to the entire film, as if it was a tale demanding of our attention. From the use of a cat's cradle in the opening, to the heavy use of stairs as "escalating" motif, the piece is composed to burn deep into the panic recesses of the mind. And considering the era that the nation was just slowly crawling out of, there is plenty on the heart of the film and its maker to justify it.

And the funny part about the entire affair is that despite its many of its glaring issues, Housemaid is a potent, almost seething nightmare. Unlike what eventually became something of a suspense movie staple; the usurping nanny manipulating the well-to-do family, the story takes full advantage of everything at Ki-young's disposal to weave a vision of middle-class in awe of the west's ideals, to the detriment of human logic, or understanding. The central family of the film led by a struggling piano teacher, and a career seamstress find themselves yearning for a life beyond, only to find themselves endlessly at odds with their current state. As they are both career-minded, and not at all shy about coming clean about their ambitions to have the biggest house with the best machines and accoutrements, the main setting never lets us forget just how squalid their success really is. Even as they are now dependent upon government funded factory works, and women are entering the workforce with great speed, there is this unerring feeling that the advancements have themselves led to even more work, greater exhaustion, and yet some notions that towing this line is key to infinite happiness.

So when the piano teacher, Mr. Kim(Kim Jin-kyu) finds himself at the center of affections by one of his students, leading to the entry of a new home student, and inevitably the titular character, we are granted insight into the film's more paranoid leanings. Despite the advancements whirling through asian society like a torrent, it is also a delicate one where a once sidelined population (in this case, females) has suddenly seen a shift in fortunes. It is to the point that not unlike everyone else in the film, they are attracted to this newfound sense of empowerment inherent in the system that is now providing far more than had previously been possible. It's so pervasive, that even marriage doesn't seem to be much of a deterrent for some of the younger generation. And even as the film's elder's terribly wish for things to maintain their noble lustre, there is an inescapable clawing effect taking place that seems uninterested in the artifice all around them, and rather more about living up to an approval that will never truly come. Even the children of the Kims don't seem like simple kids. They have seen too much, and can be considered every bit as questionable.

This is made all the more bold once the housemaid arrives and begins to make clear just how much she really doesn't seem terribly interested in the family she is tasked with caring for. She kills rats out in the open, harbors secrets, and inevitably tears herself into the world like a being possessed. It is not about the affections of the piano teacher, but rather what he represents; an illusion of security and community acceptance. And even as the film's emotional pitches reach almost absurdly operatic heights, there's a very real sense that the apolitical Ki-young is highlighting an attraction to a perpetually unfulfilling lifestyle where all that gathers is material, and little else. Working their souls and bodies to ruin in the name of something that offers no respite, and even less love, Housemaid cuts deep into what Ki-young must have seen somewhere on the horizon, and what we are perhaps just barely becoming aware of..a hell of our own making.

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