Director Sang-soo Im has said that his recent, The Housemaid, a remake of the eponymous Ki-young Kim production — considered one of the greatest Korean films ever made — is meant to be an indirect representation of the gap between rich and poor in Korea. Following Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon), an impoverished young woman who begins work for Hoon (Jung-Jae Lee), a sleazy albeit successful businessman, his pregnant wife, Haera (Seo Woo), and their shockingly pure-hearted first-born, Nami (Seo-Hyeon Ahn), Im delivers on his promise. By doing away with the subtly of Kim’s original, and instead making The Housemaid an in-your-face exploration of sex and power, he gives birth to a remarkably potent social commentary. However, a swift delivery it is not, as the film suffers from underdeveloped characters, and a few unexplained plot points.
Regardless, The Housemaid is a success. As a screenwriter, Im packs each scene with zest — leading to some incredible powerful moments. One such instance being a short shot of Hoon, as he stands in a hallway, watching both the live-in maid and his wife as they complement adjacent rooms — this very effectively presents the man’s split amongst the women. Another key element of Im’s remake is that Eun-yi does not have the power that her counterpart in Kim’s version did; in fact, she’s at the bottom of the food chain. When Hoon impregnates the young woman, his consequences are made hers — sending Haera and her mother on a quest to rid Eun-yi of the baby via means of poison and assassination attempts.
And though the film suffers from a slow-start, it becomes immensely poignant from the second act onward. Through Hoon’s family, who considers Eun-yi a “commoner” and uses money to solve all their problems, Im makes the social crack explicitly clear. In The Housemaid, it is the rich who rule, whereas the poor feed off their scraps. Im hits home with a last scene that encompasses the family’s madness — even in the face of disaster. Still drinking expensive red wine, the insanity is seen in Lee and Woo’s faces.
One of the reasons why these characters don’t seem one-note is because the acting is top-notch. Striding past poor characterization, each performer feels human. Woo is suitably cattish, and Lee plays on Hoon’s rottenness with flying colors. The standout, however, is Jeon. As Eun-yi, the actress does what the script demands of her: She’s child-like, powerless, and naïve. But what makes her pop out is that she does all this while remaining believable.
Usually, it’s up to the American market to remake obscure foreign films. Although, in the case of the Korean export, The Housemaid, it was a same region director that decided to put a new-spin on a classic. And it works; for the most part, Im’s latest, which was adapted to fit the current South Korean climate, is a surprisingly taut thriller.