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The Housemaid (Hanyo) Review

By Jim Dooley

The Housemaid's Tale

Having partnered with the World Cinema Foundation (WCF), has made "The Housemaid (Hanyo)", and three other films, available for free HD screening as part of the on-line film festival, "Vanguard Restoration: The First Films of the WCF." The beautifully restored print provides a great introduction to the concerns and experiments of Ki-young Kim in their most commercially successful and approachable realization. The narrative is conventional, but, from the opening credits with its cacophonous jazz over the image of a sister and brother playing cat's cradle, the film signals a modern aesthetic that will hardly be contained.

The bulk of the film is shot in a domestic setting similar to that of Yasujiro Ozu‘s "Tokyo Story." Both sets create a sense of claustrophobia. Kim divides his domicile into territories that will be contested by the women in this story as they fight for the attention of the main character, the music teacher: a domestic space, represented by the king bedroom and adjacent living area, which is dominated by the wife's sewing machine; a liminal space, represented by the tall stairs and rat infested kitchen, where violence is plotted and enacted; and the second story, with a parlor dominated by an upright piano, where the music teacher practices and gives private lessons, sharing a balcony with a spare bedroom, which will become the maid's.

Like Ozu's film, here is a critique of the amalgam of traditional and bourgeois values in the post-war boom economy and its impact on individuals and families. But where Ozu creates image studies of ordinary life and slowly builds his narrative with long shots, common events, occasional juxtapositions of country paths with the city or home, Kim builds an extravagant narrative of betrayals and threats.

As in a propaganda film, we are told the theme explicitly: Materialism drives the wife to take on supplemental work as a piece-meal seamstress. The work ruins her health, so the family takes on a housemaid and the husband takes on a private student. Men cannot resist these interlopers, so tragedy follows. The valuation of home ownership, linoleum, and television were the drivers. In propaganda films, the stated message rings false; here, incidental.

While the domestic space provides characters and setting, the film is in the vein of a melodramatic thriller. A series of events creates a crisis of guilt for the hero. A girl he's seen expelled for writing him a letter cannot adjust to factory life and dies, and her friend, who has been taking private piano lessons, confesses that the dead girl had written the letter for her. He finds his guilt magnified. When the student then throws herself at him, he resists her seduction, though is emasculated as he begs her to continue her lessons, even as he was trying to ban her from the home, since the income of her lessons helps cover the mortgage on the new house. Still in shock and grief after her departure, in his weakness he falls pray to a second, almost accidental, seduction, this time from the housemaid, whom the private student had introduced from a modern textile factory into the household.

The housemaid, capricious, feline, competitive, and unstable, quickly upsets the balance of the house. The wife, concerned with appearances, steers the husband into ever more compromising positions. The practices are a complete inversion and perversion of the father's and the society's sense of decency, and lead to abortions, murders, and suicides.

But while the narrative is familiar, a la "Fatal Attraction", personal symbolism and the characters' psychoses seem hardly containable. As in later, more surreal films by Kim, like "Carnivore", children, including the dead or aborted, seem to act primarily within some symbolic language and only secondarily as characters or plot points in the story. By the end of the both of these the films, Kim breaks his narratives to restore some sense of order. Here, he goes back to the opening speech of the film, reinventing the narrative as a "what if" discussion between the husband and wife and then further contains the affect by having the father directly address the audience with a moral.

Despite the somewhat jarring end (which counters Neil Young's assertion that "Every Man Needs a Maid"), the film is well-paced and acted, beautifully shot in black and white, and interesting thematically, aesthetically and in its appropriation of different genres.

What did you think?

Movie title The Housemaid (Hanyo)
Release year 1960
MPAA Rating NR
Our rating
Summary Despite the somewhat jarring end, this South Korean film from 1960 is well-paced and acted, beautifully shot in black and white, and interesting thematically, aesthetically and in its appropriation of different genres.
View all articles by Jim Dooley
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