87. “The Housemaid”, Kim Ki-young (1960)

Part of the 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

The Housemaid

The Housemaid, aka Hanyeo or 하녀

dir. Kim Ki-young scr. Kim Ki-young cin. Kim Deok-jin with Kim Jin-kyu, Joo Jeung-ryu, Lee Eun-shim

In 100 words: A darkly comic and biting satire reflecting on Korea’s rapid modernization and the rising middle class, Housemaid eschews conventional melodrama by refusing to make one character even remotely likable while simultaneously making everyone a villain. Each character acts on their basest instincts, not unlike animals cornered. Everything about the movie is excessive: actors give breathy line readings, Kim designed the home like a horror mansion and uses diegetic music to chilling effect, yet nothing about it feels overdone. At its best, the movie’s a delirious fever dream—heightened, lurid, and even rancid, but with a self-awareness that keeps it grounded.

Other Movies for Context: Kim Ki-young remade this film twice. The one I saw, Woman of Fire (1971), is gross even by this film’s standards, although Kim’s imagery is still wonderful. Kim’s style is also a major influence on the work of major world-class Korean filmmakers today. Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and Im Sang-soo all owe some of their styles to Kim. Im Sang-soo remade this movie into his 2011 film, starring Jeon Do-yeon.

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