There are few films as delicately beautiful as The Housemaid. There are also few films that use that beauty to disguise the ugliness that’s lurking underneath. Beneath the water-still porcelain feeling of the mansion in which most of the action (in both senses) takes place is the dirt red beating heart of infidelity and the cruelty and callousness that exist within some people who can see nothing beyond protecting their wealth and status.
Euny (Do-yeon Jeon), a shy but enterprising young woman becomes the second housemaid for the extremely wealthy Hoon (Jung-jae Lee) and his pregnant wife Hae Ra (Seo Woo). She joins the older, crankier Byeong-sik (Yeo-jeong Yoo) and the daily work of tending the house and their young daughter sets in as Byeong-sik remarks how ugly their job is.
It becomes clear only after Hoon slides his way into Euny’s panties with ease that the true ugliness of their work becomes clear.
Director Sang-soo Im sets two tones for the film from the beginning. The first scene involves the senseless suicide of a young, nameless girl that gives a bit of morbid curiosity to Euny and displays the world as one of chaos and deadly randomness. That first sequence is also shot with grace, but not nearly as much style and fragility as when Euny enters into the world of Hoon and his vast wealth. Two ideas: chaos and order, both laid out in their extremes.
Euny and Byeong-sik are tourists in this world, never really belonging in the palatial estate that they spend more time in than the family. Even with Byeong-sik’s age and wisdom, the message of their expendability is brought into focus several times during the story. Hoon and Hae Ra are not as mercurial and beastly as some wealthy couples that have been portrayed on film, but it’s their silent politeness that makes them all the more monstrous.
What results from Hoon’s advances and Euny’s puppy love is what often happens when a young man commits adultery without a condom. What results after that is the true dramatic core of the film – the despicable decisions, schemes and elite status that are lorded over the young girl – especially by the Mother-in-Law (Ji-young Park) who joins the fray as a catalyst of truly wicked behavior. Even as Hoon and Hae Ra are complicit in the vile actions, it’s Hae Ra’s mother that is in complete control over what seems like an everyday situation for a woman in the lap of luxury. The cost of immense wealth is the occasional infidelity and a fetus to sweep under the rug in a home that only has marble tile.
Still, Euny – a girl more than eager to hop into bed with a married father (with more children on the way) – is far from a saint herself.
The acting in The Housemaid is quietly brutal on down the list except for Yeo-jeong Yoo who delivers most of her lines with the epsom salt she’ll need to soak her old feet in later. On the opposite side of things, the young girl whom Euny looks after is both the only innocent character and the character who most exists as a promise – one that’s being raised in this cold household.
Beyond the scenery and cinematography being breathtaking, the main cast is also stunning. It’s a sexy film filled with people who are credited with “/model” on their resumes. As for the sex, which is a major factor, it is shot like a painting that deserves to hang in the Louvre. The casual nudity of the film makes the human form so commonplace, and yet Im still manages the height of anticipation when Euny pushes the comforter from her nearly naked body at Hoon’s humble demand.
There is a dichotomy to almost every particle of The Housemaid. Life makes sense only until it doesn’t. Men are meant to cheat until the consequences catch up. The white walls of the house won’t hide the blood stains.
Over all, the movie is a vision and a triumph of exquisite savagery. Each frame delivers something outstanding to see as well as a new bit of tension to add to the tight feeling in your chest. It’s fantastic, well-crafted, and ends with a flourish.
Feel free to check out the trailer here.