In 2007, the World Cinema Foundation, whose mission is to restore and preserve neglected films from around the world, especially areas of the world where preservation is not a priority, was founded by Martin Scorsese. On average, they’ve restored three films per year since, with nineteen films from countries as diverse as Senegal, the Philippines and Turkey, and from dates ranging from 1931 to 1991. Just last week, Scorsese announced that several of these rare films would be available for home viewing via the Criterion Collection’s Hulu channel. This was huge news!
To sweeten the deal, for a little while these films will be available for free. So, if you’re in the U.S., go to Hulu and get watching. Here is a clip of Scorsese himself introducing this deal.
I started with Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (Hanyo, 1960), from South Korea. It’s a great restoration, though a few reels show quite a bit of wear (one of the pictures below — muddled and choppy — shows just how fortunate we are the restoration happened when it did).
When I sat down to watch this movie, I had absolutely no idea what it was about. For all I knew, it was a coming of age story, or, maybe, the housemaid helps a widower and his children by singing to them. I hadn’t even seen the image above, which would have led me to believe that perhaps something untoward was going on with this housemaid.
If you want to approach it the same way I did, now’s the time to leave. Along those lines, while I don’t plan on spoiling everything, I’m going to be pretty liberal about spoilers while I discuss this film here. Thus ends my warnings.
The film begin with a kind of framing device. It rains outside where the camera is stationed, zooming in through a living room window. A man and his wife are sitting down together, and the man is reading about a businessman who had an affair with his housemaid. The wife cannot believe it. The man can. Look, he says, at our own housemaid. She’s the first person I see when I come home, after all. “See” may be a euphemism. Thus, we are ushered into the story.
We move to a factory that houses and gives various lessons to its young female workers. A couple of the students are nervously making a plan to give the music teacher a secret note. And into the room enters the man we met in the framing device. He’s the attractive music teacher, Mr. Kim (Kim Jin-kyu). He finds the note and leaves the classroom immediately to find the supervisor. The young woman who wrote the note is suspended. During class, Mr. Kim tells the students that he will be offering private piano lessons at his home, for any interested. Only one is, though not for the reasons Mr. Kim hopes. It’s kind of a side story, Mr. Kim’s successful efforts to rebuff this student’s advances, but it allows us to get a sense of the relationship between Mr. Kim and his wife before the titular housemaid arrives.
The Kim family has just moved into a two-story home, and they are very proud of this, though they cannot really afford it. Besides taking care of the two children, Mrs. Kim is pregnant and still working long hours at a sewing machine to help financially. She cannot do it all, though, and finally, in a moment of near breakdown, admits:
The amorous piano student recommends another girl from the factory (Lee Eun-shim). When we first meet her, she has a certain air about her. Her hair is pulled back into pig tails and she smokes and swaggers around the house.
At this point in the movie, I was expecting that this housemaid was looking for trouble, that she was going to upset this loving family. This was not entirely wrong, but there is so much more than that.
See, there are a couple of reasons the housemaid is here:
1) though the housemaid costs money, the wife can use all of her energy sewing, thus making enough money to cover the housemaid and then some, hopefully enough to get that television.
2) the housemaid herself, just like the new two-story home, is a symbol of status.
In 1960, when this film premiered, Korea was undergoing a massive shift in their economy. A middle class was forming, slowly. This film leads me to believe Kim Ki-young didn’t approve of the way this middle class sought after material gain to show their advancement.
Material gain and the genuine love the Kims have for each other are fascinatingly intertwined. They want to set up their dream house because it matches what they see as their perfect, successful union. Each thinks the other deserves it, so they work very hard to pay the bills.
I won’t go into the details — the housemaid does cause her trouble fairly soon:
Though he fights it as best he can, the housemaid succeeds in seducing Mr. Kim while his wife is away visiting her family. When she returns, Mrs. Kim unknowingly reminds Mr. Kim of his shame:
Yes, now Mr. Kim is going to be the father of two more young babies. Mr. Kim cannot keep his unfaithful moment from Mrs. Kim, though. This is where the film becomes nearly unbearable (in a good way) and all the more intense, insightful, and unique.
Remember, above I said that the housemaid was looking for trouble, and she certainly was. She’ll keep this up. At the same time, she herself is terrorized by the Kims. By the end, her seduction looks innocent, relative to every character. You almost feel sorry that she got herself in this mess.
Yes, this is an extremely claustrophobic domestic thriller. The Kims cannot get rid of the housemaid because she’ll tell the factory and Mr. Kim will lose his all important job. For her part, all the housemaid has is Mr. Kim, so she’s going to use all of her leverage to have him:
Look at this complicity!
I promise I have not scratched the surface with this film. Remember: there are two children running around the house. If you think they provide levity and comic relief while all of this domestic insanity is taking place, if you think they are the innocent who must witness the terror of adults, you’d be wrong. Though their parents and the housemaid are despicable, the two children are not much better. No, this is not a movie for those who like to have a character towards whom they feel warmly. There’s nothing warm about this film. Even this final shot, when Mr. Kim addresses us, has its sinister side:
A brilliant movie that has quickly moved up the ranks of my favorite movies. It’s restored and it’s free — watch it!