The 2008 Pusan International Film Festival revisited two of Kim Ki-young’s films as part of its “Archeology of Korean Cinema” retrospective. One of these was Kim’s undoubtedly most famous work, “The Housemaid,” which screened in a new digital restoration that premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
One of the enduring classics of Korean cinema, Kim’s 1960 expressionist masterpiece was first rediscovered, along with his other works, at the 2nd Pusan International Film Festival in 1997. At the time, Kim, a once popular director, had become a marginal cult figure, not having directed a feature since 1984’s “Carnivore.” However, his Pusan retrospective, which the director himself attended, was a great success, and allowed viewers to rediscover this eccentric talent. Tragically, the new lease on his career life that resulted was cut short by Kim’s death the following year in a house fire, in which his wife also perished.
Along with Kim, the opportunity to see what the director would have made of present-day Korea also died. Left behind was a remarkable, and remarkably strange, body of work by a director who explored the social changes and trends of Korean society through the decades, refracting it through a lurid lens in which his characters’ veneer of respectability is stripped away, revealing the atavistic desires and impulses that lurk beneath this surface.
“The Housemaid” arrived at a pivotal moment in Korean history: in 1960, the corrupt regime of then-President Syngman Rhee was overthrown, creating a brief window during which democracy flourished. However, this also created a power vacuum that was filled in 1961 by dictatorial President Park Chung-hee, who tenaciously clung to power until his assassination in 1979. This brief period of democracy created the conditions for a renaissance of Korean cinema, during which filmmakers enjoying relaxed censorship were free to explore the problems of their society, many of which were caused by the devastation wrought by the Korean War and the subsequent separation of the country into north and south. Two major examples, both released in 1961, were Kang Dae-jin’s “Mabu (The Coachman)” and Yu Hyun-mok’s “Obaltan (A Stray Bullet),” the latter film often cited as the greatest Korean film ever made. These films unflinchingly expressed the poverty and desperation that afflicted much of the populace at this time, taking many cues from post-World War II Italian neo-realism.
“The Housemaid,” however, was strikingly different from these other films in many ways. Although this film, too, had at least a tenuous basis in reality (it was inspired by a newspaper article), Kim spun it into a twisted tale of male anxiety, materialism, sexual competition, and a heightened expressionism bordering on surrealism. Kim’s merciless skewering of the burgeoning Korean bourgeoisie proved him to be a potent Eastern counterpart to Luis Buñuel. Structured with a framing device featuring a husband reading this newspaper account to his wife, the story of “The Housemaid” concerns Dong-sik (Kim Jin-kyu), a music teacher whose students are the female workers at a factory. Dong-sik and his wife (Joo Jeung-nyeo) have just bought a two-story house, part of their quest to raise their class status in society. Dong-sik has also just bought a piano, and offers private lessons in order to pay for the piano. Dong-sik prides himself on being a morally upright person, so much so that when it is called to his attention that one of his students has written a passionate love note to him, he reports the woman to her superiors, causing her to quit the job in mortification.
Meanwhile, at home, Dong-sik’s wife is overwhelmed with housework and her side job as a seamstress. One day, when she is startled by a rat jumping out at her in the kitchen, she asks Dong-sik to hire a housemaid to help out in their new house. Dong-sik asks Kyeong-hee (Eom Aeng-ran), one of his music students, to find someone he can hire, and she enlists her friend Myeong-sook (Lee Eun-sim) to take the job, promising to augment her wages with money of her own. Kyeong-hee is also in love with Dong-sik, and takes private piano lessons at his house in an attempt to get closer to him. Myeong-sook is an odd creature; when we first meet her, she is furtively smoking in a closet, and when she arrives at Dong-sik’s house, she heads straight for the kitchen and kills the rat she finds there with her bare hands. This action serves to contrast Myeong-sook’s uncouth country ways with the supposedly more refined manners of the city folk. As the film progresses, of course, these distinctions prove to be illusory. Dong-sik admonishes the house maid to use the rat poison kept in the cabinet in the future. The rats, and more importantly the rat poison, are elements that become pivotal to the plot.
The family’s new two-story house (a recurring motif of Kim’s subsequent films) is a cavernous space, still under construction, a site of both affluence and danger. Dong-sik forces his crippled daughter to climb the steep stairs, in order to build up both her muscles and her character. Her bratty brother Chang-soon (Ahn Sung-ki) uses these stairs to play a cruel trick on her, luring her with a bag of sweets and causing her to fall down the stairs. This act of falling down the stairs is reprised later in the film, with much more tragic results.
Kim Ki-young, reportedly heavily influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud, broke with the social-realist mode favored by his contemporaries, and prevalent in most of his previous films. Kim achieved this with near-total control of his mise-en-scène, carefully calibrating every element – lighting, sound, staging – for maximum tension. For this reason, Kim preferred to shoot on soundstages rather than on location. In “The Housemaid,” the camera prowls every inch of the house, stalking the characters like a voyeur. The visuals finally come through in this new restoration, a joint project of the Korean Film Archive and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, both organizations dedicated to film preservation. The great work of Kim’s cinematographer Kim Deok-jin can finally be fully appreciated, the rich black-and-white photography heightening the outrageousness of the scenario.
Gender roles and class structures become a deadly mix in this film, as the housemaid seduces Dong-sik and unleashes all sorts of havoc leading to the family’s destruction. At this time, many young women traveled from the countryside to Seoul and other large cities to work as domestic servants, as well as less reputable professions as barmaids and prostitutes. The film’s portrayal of this social phenomenon helped it to connect with large audiences, making “The Housemaid” one of the biggest box-office hits of the year. Audiences identified very strongly with the family’s situation in the film, and very much against the character of Myeong-sook in the film, to the detriment of the career of actress Lee Eun-sim, who apparently never appeared in another film. Reports at the time indicate that female audiences especially hated her character; in movie theaters her appearances were greeted with howls of, “Kill the bitch!” “The Housemaid” functioned as a cautionary tale, especially in the final, audacious twist of the film’s ending. Kim would continue to explore these themes for the rest of his career, even going so far as to remake “The Housemaid” twice, as “Woman of Fire” (1971) and “Woman of Fire ’82” (1982).
“The Housemaid” was one of the great highlights of the festival for me personally. I have seen this film several times, and this new digital restoration was quite a revelation. The restoration wasn’t entirely finished (there were a couple of reels that still required the removal of old and inaccurate burned-in English subtitles; by the time you read this it should be complete), but in the sections that were done, I felt as if I were seeing the film for the first time. I envy those who will truly be seeing “The Housemaid” for the first time in this new version, since it is a singular film and a great introduction to the work of Kim Ki-young, one of cinema’s greatest and most idiosyncratic talents.
“The Housemaid” screened at the 13th Pusan International Film Festival, and will screen in theaters and be released in its new version on DVD and Blu-ray in 2009. For more information on the film, go to the film’s page on the Festival Web site. For more specific details on the film’s restoration, visit the World Cinema Foundation’s Web site.