Those of you who might remember my glowing review of the 1960 Kim Ki-Young film Hanyeo (하녀, Eng The Housemaid) included in this post may also have noted that a remake is in cinemas now. I saw it with a few people the other day, including Miss Jiwaku and our friends Mark and Jin.
Miss Jiwaku thought that stylistically it was a very effective remake of the film, and I have to agree: in terms of camera work, mood, music, it’s something of a cross between the original film, and something Wong Kar Wai would make. (The Wong Kar Wai resonances may not be intentional, but there are many moments at the beginning which feel right out of In The Mood for Love.)
But the film itself… oh, how I abhorred it. There are spoilers ahead, so I’m putting it after a cut… if you haven’t seen it, well, I don’t recommend the film, but in case you think you will see it, you might want to read on only after doing so.
Short version: in my opinion this is a horrible remake and a questionable film even on its own. I would save my money if I were you. But if you want to know why, feel free to read on. For one thing, the translation of the story from 1960 to 2010 is, well… okay, so people tend not to have housemaids (하녀) anymore. I understand that if the story is to be about a housemaid, then the family has to be rich. But they don’t seem like real rich people. Rather, they seem exactly like what unimaginative middle-class people would imagine — and hate about — rich people.
For one thing, there’s a profound anxiety about the “foreignness” of rich people. Thinking back to the film 2009: Lost Memories, I found a parallel, for in that film, it is the Japaneseness of the characters in the alternate history which is meant to horrify audiences. In the remake of Hanyeo, evil is not only characterized as the domain of the rich — it is also characterized as being inherently connected to how “foreignized” someone is.
One example is the presence of wine in the narrative. Anyone who drinks wine is evil. It’s as clear-cut a rule as, say, “Anyone who has sex in a Western horror film is going to die.” The consumption of wine in this film is a marker of corruption. It’s not that whoever drinks wine gets drunk and then does evil, but rather that the consmption of wine is an indicator of whose soul is already blackened by evil, which will manifest in the film.
But, pathetically, the characters and their relationship with wine is basically pathetic. They don’t quite know enough about it to take it for granted, and so there is always a great deal of ceremony involved in the consumption of wine. They make a great show of drinking it, of indulging in it. There’s a scene where both husband and wife are “savoring” their wine, and I’d swear, it’s as if they’ve never had the stuff before. (And the fact that the head maid of the house, the old lady, also drinks their wine in the kitchen, yes, is also a marker of how evil she will turn out to be.) They are, in essence, a caricature of rich people, coming off as much as pathetic, ignorant nouveau riche idiots as they do evil, foreignized wine-swilling rich bastards.
And nobody, nobody seems more idiotic than the wife in the story. Miss Jiwaku’s reading of the film is that she is a kind of ideal wife to many people, but for us both, she was revolting. One look at her face shows that she’s had too much plastic surgery — her lips don’t look right, and the huge eyes with which she moons at the camera frankly make her seem not beautiful, but merely infantile and simpleminded. Her voice is meant to be off-putting, I know, but there’s just so much aegyo one can slather on without looking like a moron.
But my biggest problem is with the ethics of the film. You see, ethically, the film is retarded in comparison with the original. After all, the original was (apparently, or by its own claim) based on what was, or could have been, a true story about a middle class family destroyed by a husband’s infidelity. The original film was all about mundane, average-people evil. In fact, the bizarre ending of the film highlights this fact, when one of the characters breaches the fourth wall to warn the men in the audience not to be unfaithful and be careful of their housemaids.
But this film is a complete inversion of that message, a cheap and lazy populist message wherein evil is an upper-class thing, wherein poor and middle-class people don’t need to watch themselves, but instead watch out for how rich people are going to screw them — literally and figuratively too. Not that the lower-class people are any better. The very few we see are very ugly, or outright pathetic. The roommate character, for example, doesn’t look like your average Korean woman in her 20s or 30s. She was obviously chosen as an “ugly” actress. I think she’s good at her job, sure, but why did they choose someone so obviously selected for ugliness to play a poor character? Even the main actress, Jeon Do-yeon, who is no slouch, is made up to look dreadfully plain and unattractive, and when she starts wearing cheap makeup in an effort to impress her boss after he sleeps with her once, she looks more pathetic than radiant.
And this, this is where the ethics of the film is baffling. For in the original Hanyeo, the husband pays a grave price for his crime. Yes, it destroys his family, but it also destroys him. The ending of the story is something right out of Shakespeare, or, one imagines, out of old-styled Confucian law: everyone in the family dies, basically. It’s horrific. At the end of this remake, though, the worst we can say is that there is some marital tension from the affair — especially because the housemaid was impregnated — and that the daughter knows quite well how much of a bitch her grandmother is, how cruel her parents are. (I think this horrific corruption of the child is the meaning implied in the bizarre, all-in-English final scene, which looks like a dream sequence embodying the experience of the little girl in a household where the evil that has happened cannot be spoken.) Daddy, who is the most culpable, is the most lightly punished, and compared to the original film, the housemaid is much more powerless, much more pathetic. (At least in the original, she grasped some of the power that her state and sexuality gave her.)
Worse, it’s arguable that every woman in the film (except the overweight roommate/friend) is evil. Even the housemaid, who’s simpleminded and naive and seems not to realize she is pregnant after the one-night-stand with her boss, is a willing accomplice in his adultery. But the wife is a horrid person, and her mother is so pointedly, irreparably evil that in a number of scenes, the director drives this home by having shadows and darkness turn her gleaming eyes pure orbs of blackness.
Worst of all, the old woman — the head maid of the house — who brought the young housemaid into the job in the first place, is evil. She is corrupted by the many years of service to rich people, as she says — and she’s swilling their wine too, back in the kitchen — and she does that one thing I utterly hate in Korean films. She does evil things, and then cries about it and apologizes. I’m sorry, but a character who helps some rich bastard force an abortion onto a young woman, and then cries because she knows she’s doing wrong? She doesn’t get my sympathy at all — not one iota. It’d be different if I thought she didn’t really realize what she was doing, but when she knows full well how awful she’s being, and does it anyway? That’s when my sympathy flies the coop. Then again, this is something I’ve seen in other Korean narratives — all the way back to Hyeon Chingeon’s “A Lucky Day” — so maybe it’s a kind of pathos that rings true for Koreans and not so much for Westerners, whom I imagine think the character simply ought to stand up and do the right thing.
(I’m wondering, though, if this sort of pathos was something more common in monarchic and more hierarchic stages of Western history. I can certainly see why it would have currency in Korean culture even now, but I don’t hate the trope any less for that.)
The only positive thing I can say about the film is that at least it does explore, interestingly, the kinds of power-struggles and rage that can emerge among women over a man. I kind of have to wonder what would have happened if Jeon Do-yeon’s character has as much backup as the wife’s: what if her cousin was a gangster who brought his buddies in to pay the family back for what they did to that poor girl? What if her aunt was a tax official who audited the father’s tax records? While, in the original film, the housemaid was similarly alone in the world, at least she grasped that she did have some power in the situation, and could take control to some degree. Had she given birth to the baby, and proven the child’s paternity, she might have been set for life — thus ruining the rich man, and probably collapsing his supposedly happy family.
Last spoiler: the hanging scene at the end was just ridiculous, especially where the maid catches on fire. It was just too much, way too much.
My advice is, get your hands on the original film — the DVD is available now — and enjoy that instead. Unless you’re desperate to see Jeon Do-yeon topless, you don’t need to see this film.