A Korean city square is bustling. Folks window shop, eat out, and party in lavish apartments. Restaurant workers bust their ass to meet the demand, taking shots in-between flipping whatever’s on the grill. A young woman stands on a balcony, gazing at the crowds before ending her life with a fall. Some stop to look, some debate whether they should go closer, few seek help. Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon from the terrific “Secret Sunshine“) rides by the scene after a hard night of work, finding empty streets and a vague chalk outline on the pavement. Director Sang-soo Im firmly stamps his view of a cold, uncaring society right from the start, displaying humankind as a selfish entity devoid of any semblance of decency. He’ll make a full circle with this sequence eventually, but until then he uses this current to tackle modern Korea’s huge gap in living conditions (the “super rich” and poor, as he puts it), revel in soapy melodrama, orchestrate highly arousing sex scenes, and shoot probably the most elegant and beautiful visuals this side of “I Am Love.” The fact of it being a remake hangs overhead, but at the end of the day, whatever you say about 2010’s “The Housemaid,” it is an all-together different beast from the 1960s post-Korean War oddity, though simply nowhere near as strong or lingering.
Eun-yi meets with her new employer, an older maid seeking another live-in to help a wealthy pregnant woman with her children when they pop out. She accepts and meets the family, who aren’t much deeper than their first impressions: there’s the yoga-obsessed (and very attractive) wife/mother, the ultra business-minded (also very attractive) husband/father, and little well-spoken (don’t kids say the darndest, most brilliantly written, deep things?) Nami. The family treats Eun-yi much like the objects in their ravishing, enormous house, ignoring her until she can be used. And after a while her usefulness morphs from tending to the wife to sexing up the husband, thus starting a brief affair that leads to another pregnancy. Gossip spreads thanks to the older maid, who watches/listens to their passionate love-making (one of the only amusing scenes in the film) and eventually the wife and her devious mother find out. The latter decides to take things into her own hands, and in a truly despicable act, she “accidentally” pushes Eun-yi off of the second floor staircase to certain doom via a hard porcelain floor.
Spoiler (or not, because there’s still a solid 40 minutes left), she doesn’t die and neither does the baby, which leads to more crooked plans and eventually to an all-too-short meltdown by the young housemaid. The director promises a thriller but instead delivers a rather uninventive, dull drama, one that’s more focused on its sensationalistic depiction of class differences than, you know, having a strong scene. The family (wealthy) makes decisions for their housemaid’s (poor) life; they pay her off as if it would replace her baby and emotions; they drown themselves in material possessions when dealing with death, etc. It’s nice that the filmmaker has an agenda, but there needs to be more than just an overall and over-the-top idea. Strong individual scenes work wonders for most directors, even those who beat whatever they’re trying to say firmly into an audience’s head. Unfortunately here, even in confrontational moments when even a hack could conjure suspense or intrigue, Sang-soo drops the ball. The husband goes face to face with his mother-in-law, claiming that his seed is still his and should live on. It’s a threat, one that should initiate a strong response from the devilish fiend, but nothing happens. This is how many of the later, post-Act 1 scenes play out, with a lot of talking and planning but no doing. The only shocker (the aforementioned second floor push) livens things up a bit, but the filmmaker opts to coast with deflated “showdowns” and silly plot points (at one point the in-law poisons Eun-yi), hoping people will connect with his “Days Of Our Lives” worthy tale.
Thankfully the performances are better: they never rise far above the material but they do prevent it from being completely grating. Still, the actors feel restricted by the too-conventional scenario and character roles, which prohibit them from truly shining. Oscar-bait pictures can be shrug-worthy, but at least there’s usually an unleashed, knock-out performance to chew on. The only keeper elements here are the to-die-for cinematography and set design, which if anything proves that Sang-soo is an expert visualist. The camera slowly looms around the lavish mansion, consuming scenery as if it was a Zhang-ke Jia film. It provides a necessary distraction from the schmaltzy romance novel plot.
When push comes to shove, the only thing this remake shares with the original is a few plot points and a similar, bizarro ending scene which connects to the beginning. Differences are absolutely to be encouraged when retreading a classic, but it’s also wise to try and create something more affecting or memorable than the original. If you don’t get there, at least strive for it. Sang-soo has a great sense of camera and scenery, but he should really leave the plotting to others. [C-]