Not Rated, but it is fundamentally about adultery, child murder, and suicide. It's one of those movies that has a vibe like Psycho. You think you see a lot, but upon further thought, it's actually pretty tame in terms of visuals. But it is still a pretty upsetting movie all the way through.
DIRECTOR: Kim Ki-young
If I can make mornings work, I feel so much more productive. I still kind of putzed this morning, so I don't know if I'll be able to get this whole thing done. Just be patient with me. I'm going to try to knock this out and enjoy it at the same time. This movie kind of got a hard-knock. I was really into it, watched it for two days, got to the last four minutes, and...
...took a week off. My mom was in town. I didn't exercise while she was there because the basement becomes her domain. It was an excuse not to exercise, but also I don't necessarily regret it because it would have made things awkward. Still, the movie got shortchanged. So if I forget major parts of the film, I genuinely apologize. There was one moment that I feel like I blanked out and no summary is really giving me an explanation to what happened. But just know that I'm going to beat myself up about it because, oddly enough, this might be my favorite entry in the first Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project box.
I don't know quite what makes Korean drama so interesting. Anything I say will be a broad generalization, coupled with a novice's understanding of what Korean cinema actually is. It's just that I wasn't prepped for this kind of movie to come out of 1960 Korea. The other movies in the box set were not-this and this movie made me want to push forward into the other box sets almost immediately. And, if I'll be honest, I was getting a little burned out on the Scorsese World Cinema box. Trances did almost nothing for me, so a genuinely good film to close up the box was a smart movie. I mean, I own two more boxes of this World Cinema Project, so they'd get watched eventually. It's just that it was a perfect dismount for a set that was starting to get a little tiresome. (I love how blessed I am. I can complain about the burden of getting through luxuries that I actually mostly enjoy. I haven't even started my Agnes Varda box set, which stares at me from my shelf, intimidating me daily. )
But because it is easier to write about things that irked me, I'm going to complain about the movie for a while. Understand that everything I'm about to gripe about is contextually tethered to the knowledge that I think this movie is great and I might actually watch it again. The lowest hanging fruit is the absolute end, which I'm going to chalk up to being a cultural thing. As I mentioned, I didn't watch the last four minutes until a week after the watching the end of the movie. It's the freshest thing I have to talk about and I have thoughts. To me, where I left off would have been a perfect ending. Dong Sik-kim and Myung-Sook double suicide, leaving Mrs. Kim free of the blackmail that has been pressuring them the entire time. If I had never come back to finish the final four minutes of the movie, it would have ended in a brilliant place. Instead, I come back. He crawls to Mrs. Kim. Fine. He tells her what happens and that he loves her. Fine. Then, the whole thing ends up being a hypothetical scenario by Dong Sik-Kim about the dangers of having younger women around older men.
Now, I started my argument by stating that this feels like it is a cultural norm. In many films noir, there has to be a scene where evil is punished. It was part of keeping the movie to code, so these movies had to have these antiheroes encounter justice. It accidentally made all these movies great because they were such downer endings. I have a feeling that there's a version of that going on in Korea. For most of The Housemaid, it is a psychological thriller where everything goes badly. It's one of those movies that I automatically love because they don't mind killing kids in horrible ways. (I don't necessarily love child murder so much as I hate when children become indestructible in ridiculous situations.) They undo the death at the end. Everyone is happy. And then, AND THEN, Dong Sik-Kim breaks the fourth wall, addresses the audience, and has a light-hearted comment about how all men fantasize about younger women (ESPECIALLY THE ONES DISAGREEING WITH HIM). If I compared The Housemaid to Psycho, I can see where the tonal thing happening kind of works. (It doesn't, but give me a second.) For Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the eponymous Hitch would often have a macabre joke which would be mimicked in a lot of horror anthology. But with The Housemaid, it doesn't feel so much like a joke as a direct morality lecture to the audience. It really sullies a lot of the movie, but I also get the vibe that Kim Ki-young had to make a lot of concessions when it came to making such a dour film. There feels like some arm twisting in that last section because it is so tonally backwards to the rest of the film.
But that ending also exposes some raw nerves when it comes to the themes of the movie. If the end of the movie is about addressing ideas that the audience must have when leaving the movie, the role of women is kind of upsetting in Korean society. Before I had watched the end, there were elements where I could see the movie going two ways. In one version, I saw that men are terrible to women, forcing them to abandon morality for a place in society. It was a stretch, but considering that all of the adult characters were morally awful, it kind of scanned if I pretended hard enough. But the alternative, which is confirmed by the end, is that women are absolutely the worst and that they spend their entire lives trying to trap men. Don't get me wrong. This is what I thought the message of the movie was when I was watching it. But I like the idea of there being some ambiguity when it came to such an uncomfortable idea. The movie starts off with two women trying to seduce a married man. While I don't agree with the HR's response to this note being sent to Dong Sik-kim, the idea of firing someone for feeling sexually manipulated at work kind of scans.
But then, the movie continues to make every female adult in this movie, with the exception of the very pregnant Mrs. Kim, a complete sex-crazed nutjob. Sexuality becomes warfare. Women's role in this world is to take married men away from their spouses. If these men don't relent, women will escalate the world into killing. Yes, the married man relents, only after discovering a conspiracy and gaslighting. And even then, it makes almost no sense that Mr. Kim would sleep with his maid. He just spent a lot of emotional energy booting his piano student who was lying to him. Why would he turn to the maid with whom he has almost no chemistry? Up to that point, he considered her incompetent and was quite rude to her? If you take the finale's message, the takeaway is that any man can be seduced if the seduction is aggressive enough. That's really weird. Also, as much as I like the movie, that's not a thing that women do. These women are so far gone with gender-based warfare that they want Mr. Kim fired because the fired girl committed suicide. Dude, everything that she was doing was inappropriate.
Let's take this a step further. (Remember, this is a movie I really like!) Mr. Kim is the one to tell the tale of the seductress maid. That means all of the events are from his imagination. He's telling the story to his wife, who has inspired this tale with gossip. That means that he is actively telling his wife that he would sleep with a younger woman if she wanted to enough and that it wouldn't be his fault. That's some Mike Pence nonsense. He tells her that his kid would die and that she would have to live with them for the sake of keeping his job? And let's talk about cultural differences in honor. Mr. Kim, after impregnating the maid, is worried about losing his job because of his extramarital relationship. I get it. It was 1960's Korea and cultural differences are cultural differences. But the decision to allow the maid to continue seducing him is made immediately after the maid kills Mrs. Kim's son. She poisons him and he flies down the step. (I was tempted to rewind and watch that scene over and over because it is a very Meet Joe Black moment.) I get that there are concepts of honor and privacy in other countries, but how are you possibly covering up the death of your little boy? He was poisoned and fell down the stairs? Are there no police? There's no investigation when it comes to a young kid just dying? And all of this is done to keep a job and respect? There's a fine line between soap opera and plausibility.
But the movie still slays. Yeah, the end is deeply problematic for me. But in terms of suspense coupled with the right amount of absurdity, it is pretty great. It takes all these chances and keeps doubling down on a premise that I didn't know could handle that kind of weight. I might actually watch this one again one day.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.