CERTIFIED WEIRD: The Housemaid (1960) a probing look at Korean social structure

Unhinged storytelling that is so incredibly intoxicating. The Housemaid is watching a Shakespearean level tragedy in slow motion, as the persona’s gradually unravel, revealing a complicated existence with the introduction of one deviant character, Lee Eun-sim (Myung-sook), that turns a family upside down. It’s bleak but not from the outset, making the turn from the light of his loving marriage to the indescribably dark feeling generated by Myung-sook’s presence feel that much more impactful. Director Kim Ki-young’s vision drives the beautiful insanity of this unfamiliar family drama, leaning into the visceral nature of the story.

From where the script begins to where it ends, the arc experienced is unbelievable. The character’s feel as if they’ve been lying to the audience through the first half and open up to show a despairing underbelly contracted by a deadly toxin of a woman. Myung-sook is a phenomenal presence in the narrative, flipping any expectation of what this story could become on its head. The subversion in Ki-young’s writing is constantly engaging and keeps the keen eye off balance.

As for the craft, Kim Ki-young editing the film let him put an auteur level of detail into each character and shot. The low-lighting and influential dolly shots, most famously in the climax of the film with the rain dolly moving outside the window, Myung-sook out of sight but listening in to our main characters, Chang-soon Kim (Ahn Sung-ki), conversation. It serves as the penultimate scene of the film and is such an overwhelmingly dark moment that characterizes Ki-young’s vision. Moving to the interiors, the blocking and shot selection become increasingly claustrophobic and isolated. The surreal nature of the narrative is all captured in an evocative visual sense, blended through the editing.

Ultimately, the performances are what bring the vision to life. Ju Jeung-ryu as Mrs. Kim is masterful as the overlooked, overworked housewife. The dynamic of her and Myung-sook, and with her husband is just too weird to even comprehend. What’s happening in the film is retaliation and all these characters feel the same atmosphere of dread. The fact that it’s all shot in mainly one primary location, the house, allows the character development to flourish into scarily inhumane plot. 

It’s one of the best films to come out of South Korea. A formative film for the country stylistically and captures the angst embedded in Korean cinema. There’s a sense of cynicism here that’s enveloping and entirely thought-provoking. No two people will share the same thoughts on the ideas presented here. A classic of Korean cinema.

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