Erotic, stylish and often-juicy fun, writer-director Im Sang-soo’s “The Housemaid” is an experience far fresher and more personality-rich than most of what passes for original studio material, despite its status as a remake and its familiar story involving the mistreatment and seduction of a servant girl.
Unfortunately, however, this South Korean drama does not sustain its sizzle in either of the arenas in which it initially appears headed for distinction — psycho-soaper or wicked satire — over the long haul.
Im (“The President’s Last Bang”) has crafted a contemporary version of Kim Ki-young’s same-titled 1960 drama, which is considered one of Korean cinema’s gems.
He has retained lots of the earlier plot while turning the title character from aggressor into victim and her employers into obscenely rich oppressors. The revision allows for exploration, sometimes realistic and sometimes outrageous, of South Korea’s extreme economic gaps.
Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn) is the slightly childlike new housemaid at an opulent mansion occupied by wealthy piano-playing businessman Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) and his family.
After sweetly bonding with Hoon’s bright young daughter (Ahn Seo-hyeon), Eun-yi experiences the household’s shadier brand of regard for servants. In the case of Hoon, this involves entering her bedroom and, exuding privilege and superiority, initiating sex. She is receptive, additional episodes occur and strings eclipse piano on the soundtrack.
Pregnancy results and spurs into action the story’s other primary women, monsters all: Hoon’s spoiled wife, Hae-ra (Seo Woo), herself pregnant; Hae-ra’s machinating mother (Park Ji-yeong); and senior housekeeper Mrs. Cho (Youn Yuh-jung).
All three want Eun-yi to disappear. When Eun-yi refuses, things become nasty.
Im stirs an ambitious cauldron, combining explicit eroticism, social satire, dark dysfunction comedy, gothic horror and over-the-top melodrama. An admirer of Hitchcock, he keeps the suspense constant. His overhead and angular views of the mansion convey the warped behavior therein.
Sadly, however, this balancing act collapses in the third act, and soapier, trashier ingredients prevail over smarter ones.
The story, beneath the colorful surfaces, proves little more than an unextraordinary revenge thriller and loses credibility as it advances toward an overblown climax.
The film pales next to “La Ceremonie” or “Live-In Maid” as an examination of servant-employer dynamics. It does not score feminist points either. Eun-yi’s eventual actions are simply vengeful and desperate.
Performances, however, shine in what ultimately amounts to an uneven but vibrant stir-fry. Jeon, an award-winning Korean star, is captivating as, first, an innocent and, later, a wronged soul realizing her capacity for malice.
Also superb is Youn as Mrs. Cho, who knows the family’s every method and secret and manipulates this knowledge to her advantage.
Two and a half stars
Starring Jeon Do-youn, Lee Jung-jae, Youn Yuh-jung, Seo Woo
Written and directed by Im Sang-soo
Running time 1 hour 46 minutes