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The Housemaid - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Housemaid
Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+

The Housemaid plays out like a big-budget soap opera -- although that should not be regarded as an insult. Perhaps it should if this were an American film, but being from South Korea, it as a definitive sensibility to it that's altogether different, and in many ways a breath of fresh air.

The opening shots are strikingly different from the rest of the movie, which is set almost entirely inside a huge mansion where the title character works as a live-in maid. But before she gets that job, we see the urban city surroundings of the neighborhood she's from, and the tiny street front restaurant she's working in.

A woman near the joint jumps to her death from a balcony maybe three stories above the street. Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon) is morbidly fascinated by the incident, but the suicide seems to have no relationship to the rest of the film beyond that; we never do find out who the woman was who killed herself.

Perhaps it is the catalyst for Eun-yi deciding to get a different job, so she neither lives nor works in that grimy neighborhood. How Eunyi's resume and references could be impressive enough for her to get hired when all we've seen her do is fry street food is kind of mystifying, but sometimes it's better just to go with it. The mansion she ends up in is certainly world apart from the environment in which we first see her -- and she proves herself to be naïve and even child-like, yet more than capable of the job at hand.

Eun-yi comes to a house occupied by a very pregnant housewife, Haera (Seo Woo); her young daughter; an older, well-established maid named Byung-sik (Yeo-Jong Yun); and the largely absent husband and father, Hoon (Jung-Jae Lee). After a brief period of settling in, Hoon is home for one of his rare visits at the house, and after sex with his pregnant wife apparently fails to get him off, he comes downstairs and seduces Eun-yi.

This, of course, is where things get complicated. One way writer-director Sang-soo Im keeps us guessing is by blurring the line between hero and villain. In fact, it would be difficult to identify anyone in this movie as a clear hero, especially considering Eun-yi's blatant complicity in the affair, which ultimately gets her pregnant.

A clear villain, on the other hand, is easier to spot: Haera's improbably pretty mother, Nami (Park Ji-young), gets wind of Eun-yi's pregnancy and single-handedly turns Eun-yi's life into a soap opera nightmare. Byung-sik, the older maid, easily sees the pregnancy before Eun-yi is even aware of it, and goes to tell Nami about it in a misguided sense of loyalty. And so begins both Nami's and Haera's attempts at inducing a miscarriage.

This all sounds pretty melodramatic, and it is. But as melodramas go, it's played well; the only character played a bit two-dimensionally is Nami, the clearly evil mother-in-law. But the rest of them, while not necessarily all that nuanced on the page, are fleshed out well by gifted actors.

The film is careful not to give too much away too quickly, lending this thriller a satisfyingly slow boil. It ends in a relatively shocking scene that few could possibly see coming; I honestly still don't even know how I feel about it. (There's an epilogue that's outright bizarre, but we'll just overlook that.) But it establishes and sticks to an ominous mood in a story that keeps you guessing, thereby successfully achieving precisely what it set out to do.

Do-yeon Jeon is 'The Housemaid'.

Overall: B+
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