Friday, July 23, 2010
Fantasia Day 15 - The Housemaid
I have to do it. The Housemaid is going straight to the top of my Fantasia list this year. I know it may seem pretentious and artsy-fartsy to put a restored, Scorsese-endorsed, black & white Korean film dealing with middle class sexual mores as my favourite film so far, but it was just so damn entertaining! The Housemaid is not a slow-moving exploration, filled with subtle nuances and long takes. This thing is a real potboiler! And it takes the premise to some pretty insane places, where I was squirming in my seat, both furious at the lameness of the protagonist, but also knowing that he really was screwed and things were only going to get deeper.
This is the story of a father and a husband who works as a piano teacher at dormitory of female factory workers. After the initial framing device, in which a husband discusses a newspaper article with his wife, about a man who kills himself after having an affair with his maid, we start from the factory girls point of view. Boy are they oversexed! You really get the feeling that the piano teacher may be the only semi-attractive man in all of Korea by the way they act. One of them leaves a love note for him on his piano. Being very upright, he immediately reports it to the director and she gets a 3-day suspension. The public shaming of this leads her to quit and go home, where she later dies.
Her friend (and really the one who put her up to write the note), then becomes a student of his at his home (he needs the extra income). She then also gets her new roommate to offer her services as their housemaid. Already, aside from his hard-working and pleasant, though sickly, wife, all 3 women we've met are already totally lovesick and conniving. The piano student confesses her love to the teacher, who rebuffes her. The housemaid, over hearing this and wanting some man-love for herself as well, blackmails and seduces him to get it on with her. (Some pretty impressive nipple through the wet nightie action for an Asian movie from 1960 in this scene as well.)
And from this point in, he is truly screwed. I have spoiled enough already, so I won't go into any more detail. But let's just say that the housemaid starts taking full advantage of the situation and things get crazy awfully fast in the household.
This is one of those presentations that I would have loved to have seen with some film history buff presenter who could have given an introduction and done a Q&A at the end, because it was a fascinating movie, historically and thematically. The way the genders were portrayed, with the man being almost completely helpless. I mean he is practically raped. Seriously, what happens to him would be the equivalent of a date rape, except for the actual act itself is not unpleasant for him. But he hates having to do it and is miserable before and after.
I read several film theory essays on this film that I found through the wikipedia page and found two points that were very interesting. One discusses the historical context of the movie. It was made at a time when the Korean middle class was feeling really threatened. One dictator was overthrown by a very shaky and brief democratic republic (that got taken down by a military general who ruled for the next 20 years). Real estate prices were increasing for the first time since the war and many women were coming in from the country to work in factories. The traditional roles of men at the job and women in the house were blurring.
The second essay explained how the director (who came from a theatre tradition), used the set, which he built himself, very deliberately. He pans across walls to show the relationship between the various rooms in the house and give a sense of the characters proximity to one another. He keeps the characters out of the center of the frame, to keep the audience feeling unsettled (and it was super effective, as I constantly felt tense in the first half of the movie, before things really were tense).
Finally, the whole movie is framed by the same family (with the same housemaid), discussing the newspaper article. At the end, the husband, who is now confident and able to lightly tease his wife about how he sees the housemaid more than her, turns and faces the camera. He charmingly, but seriously, tells us that as men get older, they look more and more to younger women and that this can cause some serious problems and should be avoided. The whole thing is a giant PSA! It's funny to watch, but it really flips the whole movie on its head, somehow both undermining and yet reinforcing its themes at the same time.
This was supposed to be the restored version and it was for the first half-hour, but then it seemed as if the print got really bad all of a sudden. It was all washed out where the black and whites had been nice and crisp before and there were lots of little stutters where frames were missing. It got a little better but never seemed to achieve the quality of the first half-hour or so. I wonder if it was just a function of the quality of the original stock or if the job wasn't truly finished? In any case, a fantastic movie and I am really grateful that I got to see it in the theatre. They did a remake of it, which was very well received at Cannes (what isn't though?). I am psyched to see what they did with it.