The Housemaid is a classic South Korean film released in 1960 in a transitional time for Korea. In the time after the Japanese occupation and the Korean War, the country finally had a sense of peace and began its path to modernization and development, influenced by an influx of Western values and economic goods. The effects of such changes were reflected in the film, which also presented a unique perspective on a classic Korean melodrama genre. The director Kim Ki-young elevated a staple genre to a more frantic thriller that used innovative filming techniques and provided social commentary on the ongoing changes in the country’s identity.
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Kim Ki-young utilizes various film elements to portray the film’s theme and message. The plot centers around an ambitious family seeking to live the bourgeois lifestyle based on better material wealth than the majority of the population. “Instead of the consumer paradise promised by advertising culture, the opulent settings became gothic dens of lurid bloodletting and perversity…dramatizing the intense anxieties unleashed by modernization” (Berry, 2012, p. 102).
These settings are a large part of the film’s aesthetic and mise-en-scene. Ki-young uses erratic movements of the camera and shot angles, which relay the psychological mood and power dynamics. There is also the use of shadows, framing, and focus, which help blur plausible reality and fictionalized horror elements.
The plot of The Housemaid is an emotional story that seeks to explore the impact of Western influences and goods into a modernizing Korean society. “Material possessions of importance to middle-class families, such as houses, television sets, and housemaids, are an important part of this code [modernity]. Yet, the middle classes with these characteristics developed extremely rapidly, and so it is natural that their modern also has dark and grotesque elements” (Min-Hwa, n.d., para. 2).
Material wealth is portrayed to be synonymous with temptation, which threatened traditional family values. The maid, a lower-class woman, hired to help the financially stable couple represents bringing greed and physical obsessions into a home. The result brings woe and convoluted morality, which overturned the status quo and ultimately shifted the power dynamic in her favor through deceit and manipulation. It inherently betrays Korea’s traditions and brings the danger of losing control worse than Korea experienced in its recent troubled history in 1960.
The film’s ending is unexpected as the audience is presented with an opportunity to reflect. A rather traumatizing and horrific plot ends up being reversed as the protagonist analyzes it as a simple newspaper story but, nevertheless, draws the necessary conclusions about temptation.
The film is also an exploration of female sexuality, which began to be more exposed during this time. Sex is used to portray the female status in society, allowing abuse and exploitation. When roles are suddenly reversed, and the maid uses psychotic fear to gain control over the household, it may be representative of the consequence for Dong-sik giving in to temptation. In a way, it leaves the decision up to the audience, representative of South Korea, verging on the delicate balance of conservatism and class divide with modernism and its material temptations.
Berry, C. (2012). Scream and scream again: Korean modernity as a house of horrors in the films of Kim Ky-young. In F. Gateward (Ed.), Seoul searching: Culture and identity in contemporary Korean cinema (pp. 99-113). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Min-hwa, A. (n.d.). Representing the anxious middle class: Camera Movement, sound, and color in The Housemaid and Woman of Fire. Web.