Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Kim Ki-young | 하녀 Hanyeo (The Housemaid)

a cautionary tale
by Douglas Messerli

Kim Ki-young (writer and director) 하녀Hanyeo (The Housemaid) / 1960
In a manner somewhat reminiscent of the films of Douglas Sirk, Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid of 1960 is a hothouse melodrama with a nearly absurdly clotted story-line with elements of a horror tale. Indeed a great many aspects of the story are never quite explained: why, for example, is the composer Dong-sik Kim’s (Kim Jin-kyu) daughter Ae-soon crippled? Why are so many young women factory workers literally swooning over the handsome music teacher? And why is Kim, himself, so prudish that when one of the workers writes him a love note, he reports her to factory officials and she is fired, later committing suicide?

Just as inexplicable is the fact that her fellow worker, Kyung-hee Cho (who may actually have written the lover-letter) suddenly determines to take piano lessons from Kim? And why later does she suggest Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim), another fellow worker, take the job of the Kim family’s housemaid, with she, herself, paying part of her salary?

        How, if the Kims must both work to survive—Mrs. Kim does sewing from home—can they afford a large new attachment to their current home? And why is it hinted that Kim’s wife was greedy in desiring such a large house? Moreover, how can they afford a housemaid on top of building a new addition?
        Certainly we can speculate on some of these issues. It is clear that Kyung-hee is also in love with the composer, and takes lessons to be near him. Since the Kims are expecting a third child, they desperately need more space. Perhaps like many children of the 1950s, the daughter may have contracted polio. And Kim’s traditional decorum is what helps to make him ripe for a comeuppance in the form of a love affair with his maid.
        But even providing answers for these curious plot-twists does not necessarily lead to the central story, which presents the housemaid as a kind of femme fatale, who, after being convinced by Kim’s wife to abort the composer’s baby in her womb, determines to destroy this nuclear family, killing both the son (by pretending to feed him rat poison) and daughter (by forcing her to eat poison-laced rice).
       To large degree, through this melodramatic series of events, the director is actually creating a comic and witty series of happenings that prove that rationality can easily go awry. And in these slightly campy and fully ghoulish goings-on, Kim certainly pulls the rug from under the family’s smug sense of morality. In fact, the movie ends with the composer, evidently the narrator of this tale, explaining to us, his audience, that everything we just saw was a fiction, but it might truly happen to anyone, making the whole work a kind of cautionary tale.

     The unexplained details, accordingly, distract us, just as the characters are utterly distracted, from what is really important in perceiving reality, that evil lurks everywhere the hearts of mankind.
      Today The Housemaid reads almost like an earlier—and far more complex—version of Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction; but unlike that 1987 film, Kim’s work gives us plenty of psychological clues for his composer-character’s downfall. Both husband and wife, while outwardly seeming perfectly matched and normal, subtly torture their children (the father is determined that his daughter should climb steeps stairs to strengthen her arms and legs) and benignly neglect them. Both children, like children everywhere, bizarrely taunt one another. And all the Kims have centered their life on money and upward mobility far too much. In the end, it is almost as if their children’s and the maid’s future child must be sacrificed to their own sense of propriety and so that the composer won’t lose his job, despite the fact that he had forced another to lose hers.
       That this high comic morality play was made during a period when Korea was ruled by a censoring military government is even more amazing. And then—because of the reuse of cinema stock in the brims of hats and in mining silver from the old frames—almost lost to film audiences forever (the missing first two reels were discovered and the film restored for the Cannes Film Festival in 2008) is astounding. Eight of Kim’s other films have forever disappeared.

Los Angeles, December 20, 2016

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