Saturday, August 17, 2013

Two Versions of One Film: Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid

Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (1960)
Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960), perhaps the greatest Korean film ever made, appeared on the scene during a unique time in Korean cultural and political history.  This was the thaw that occurred between the 1960 overthrow of the authoritarian regime of Rhee Syng-man and the 1961 coup that brought Park Chung-hee to power (his daughter, Park Geun-hi, is South Korea’s current president).  There was a great artistic flowering during this brief liberal interlude and Korean cinema experienced something of a golden age, of which Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid is perhaps the best representative.

The film follows a wicked young femme fatale as she insinuates herself into the middle-class household of an unassuming piano teacher, whom she sets about seducing.  The film is gloriously moody and atmospheric (and sexist as all fuck, but one has to look past that).  Its place in Korean cinema is so iconic that the challenge of remaking it—and remaking it well—would seem to be quite daunting (although this is really the challenge of all remakes, which so rarely justify themselves).  It would be comparable, in an American context, to remaking Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which Gus Van Sant inexplicably did in 1998, to disastrous results.  But in 2010, on the fiftieth anniversary of Kim Ki-young’s film, Korean filmmaker Im Sang-soo rose to the occasion.

Now, Im has a mixed track record, based on the three films of his that have been released in the United States.  There’s 2005’s controversial The President’s Last Bang, about the 1979 assassination of the abovementioned Park Chung-hee, which doesn’t know if it wants to play itself as dark comedy or political thriller and largely fails at both.  Then there’s 2010’s The Housemaid, which I’ll discuss in just a moment.  And finally there’s 2012 evil rich people sleaze-fest The Taste of Money, which was the big flop of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, but which I enjoyed well enough.  The Taste of Money knows exactly what it wants to be: a vicious satire on 21st-century plutocratic capitalism, just as applicable in Korea as in the United States.
Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid (2010)
But back to Im’s version of The Housemaid, which is an excellent movie, perhaps the most successful remake I’ve ever seen.  Im’s first good decision was to cast Jeon Do-yeon in the title role; Jeon is one of the best actresses in Korean cinema (she won the best actress prize at Cannes in 2007 for her performance in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine) and she is captivating and mysterious in The Housemaid.  Im was also wise in the changes he made from Kim Ki-young’s original film.  When Gus Van Sant inexplicably remade Psycho, he basically did a shot-for-shot remake (as Michael Haneke did with his equally inexplicable and totally unnecessary English-language remake of Funny Games).  Im, by contrast, dramatically changes the parameters of his Housemaid.  In 2010, the employers aren’t middle class: they are obscenely wealthy.  And the housemaid is no longer the evil seductress, but rather she is an innocent and fundamentally decent person, part-seduced and part-coerced by her amoral employer.  Im stays true to the underlying theme of domestic evil explored in Kim’s film, but he makes its depiction distinctly his own while removing the sexism and classism that rankle in the 1960 film (not that older films need to be sanitized or bowdlerized, mind you; it’s merely a good idea to avoid transferring the archaic prejudices of these films into modern cinema).  In so doing, Im has carried out a remarkable feat: he has created a remake that stands on its own as a solid and satisfying work of art that also renews one’s appreciation of the original.  I heartily recommend both of these films; the first one especially is essential viewing to any fan of Korean cinema.


  1. How exactly is "submissive housemaid" less sexist than "femme fatale"? Especially coming from Asia, where (I'm led to believe) the former trope runs rampant.

    Incidentally, when I read the first sentence in the second paragraph (before sexism is brought up) my first thought was: ah, a female Tartuffe. Granted, she plays to sex rather than religion, but:

    1) Tartuffe was still looking for sex at the end of the day; at least the housemaid is more honest in that regard.

    2) Is the distinction relevant? If Puritanism taught us anything, it was that religion is a potentially compelling alternative to sex, but fulfilling many of the same basic needs (emotional intimacy, a sense of belonging) at the same basic costs (time, money). Is the "sexism" here merely that sex is invoked? Or that it's a woman who's invoking it?

    1. Hm, interesting point. I suppose initially my thinking was that the second film was less sexist because its titular housemaid isn't evil. However, in the first movie, the housemaid has far more agency than her modern-day counterpart. Kim's film arguably depicts a much more empowered woman.