Believed by many to be the best Korean film ever made, Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid is a mind-bending, brilliant piece of filmmaking that in terms of creativity ranks up with any of its contemporaries in world cinema. Unfairly neglected until its “re-discovery” in the late 1990s, The Housemaid is a rare work of art that has been seen by too few people around the world.
Based on a contemporary news story, the film focuses on a traditional family which lives in a two-story home (a symbol of wealth at the time). Dong-shik teaches music to women factory workers, while his wife spends her days at home at her sewing machine, trying to earn enough money to cover the family’s bills. One day the wife breaks down from overwork, and Dong-shik asks one of his students at the factory to find him a housemaid. However, the maid they hire acts in strange and unpredictable ways, spying on Dong-shik and catching rats with her bare hands. Soon an incident occurs which causes the housemaid to plot the destruction of the family, and the Confucian order of the household comes crashing down at the instigation of the evil and powerful housemaid.
The two-story home which Kim chooses as the primary setting of the film is seen as a symbol of the modern, middle-class Korean family. Nonetheless, behind the normal-looking surface of the home we see darker, more primitive elements penetrating into the family’s space: construction workers intruding on their daily lives, rats running amok, and ultimately the housemaid herself, wreaking havoc with possessiveness and sexual energy. With inspired editing and inventive cinematography, Kim presents a harrowing tale of modern life with great aesthetic and symbolic weight.