Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid, released in 1960 and rediscovered internationally roughly forty years later, seems an unusual pick for a national treasure (and for the time being, it can be viewed for free on Mubi). Pulpy, lurid, and grotesque, the film fuses melodrama and horror, and is unlike the realist works that dominated Korean cinema during its brief golden era, more resembling the supernaturally inflected ultraviolence of the New Wave films that exploded in the early 1990s. It comes as no surprise that Kim’s films, The Housemaid chief among them, with their stylistic daring and brazen address of social taboos, are cited as major influences among Korea’s top auteurs, including Bong Joon-ho, Kim Ki-duk, and Park Chan-wook. In 1997, the year Kim’s work was featured in a retrospective at the Pusan Film Festival, the cult veteran seemed poised for a comeback until he and his wife died in a tragic house fire.
Before Im Sang-soo’s version premiered at Cannes last year, The Housemaid had already been remade four times by Kim himself, each version further twisting an already deformed tale of a ferocious femme fatale who enters a middle-class home and tears apart its nuclear family. With its discordant clumps of piano chords, a recurring bottle of rat poison, incessant rain, and an ominous staircase, this psychosexual morass has earned Kim comparisons to Poe and Buñuel. It is, in a word, weird, that Im’s Housemaid resembles the former only superficially by retaining the same basic plot and not much else. Normally I find the tendency to measure remakes or adaptations against their implicitly superior originals rather unhelpful, but the problem with Im’s Housemaid is that without its predecessor to give it structural heft, it’s only a flimsy facade. Read Genevieve Yue’s review of The Housemaid.