THE HOUSEMAID (Kim Ki-young, 1960)

Brash and brilliant, and starkly beautiful in black and white, writer-director Kim Ki-young’s Hanyo is a bona fide classic of South Korean cinema. I watched it for the first time last night, on DVD, and am still basking in its residual glow. A pop-eyed, sultry young housemaid quite takes over the bourgeois household of a music teacher, Dong Sik, whose wife, pregnant with their third child, is sometimes bedridden; the narrative grows ever more deliberately extreme, way, way past the requirements of realism: this, a satire of the genre of domestic melodrama to which, apparently, South Korean popular culture is prone. This increasingly violent, weirdly, darkly funny tale also admits into its satirical aim a coarse, misogynistic, perhaps national sensibility. (Han Sang-gi’s emphatic score is a riot.) A “surprise ending” provides—maybe seemingly provides—welcome perspective.
     The opening stuns. The camera passes through a window, and drenching rain, to focus on a couple’s “discussion” of a newspaper article reporting a married man’s infidelity with the family housemaid; Dong’s wife seems suspicious of her husband and his attitude. The camera pulls back to reveal their seated children, a girl and a boy, feverishly intent on their game of “cat’s cradle,” here, so aggressively played that all joy has been sucked out of their play. (The boy will be shown to be a sadist who taunts his physically handicapped older sister and causes her to fall down the home staircase.)
     Throughout, the camera passes back and forth between outside and inside, and the housemaid, Myong-ja, proves a Shakespearean snoop, constantly eavesdropping on marital scenes, with the camera deliciously alert to each of her silent transgressions. Needless to say, Myong-ja and her master become lovers; indeed, Dong has already bedded with at least one of his students—with tragic results. Locking herself into a domestic rage, Dong’s wife keeps at her sewing machine: her “cat’s cradle.”
     Gripping punctuation: an overhead shot of two dead rats by the dish of poison left out for them—and a haunting anticipation of the double suicide toward which the action scurries.
     Has some affinity with Sam Fuller’s delirious melodramas later in the decade.
      Kim Deok-jin is the masterful cinematographer; but the IMDb won’t tell me whether or how he is related to the director.

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