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Review: The Housemaid (1960)

The Criterion Channel’s synopsis describes The Housemaid as a “venomous melodrama,” and it certainly earns that label; director Kim Ki-young apparently doesn’t know the definition of the word “subtle.” His camera swoops and soars like a vengeful spirit, pushing in and dollying backwards with relentless, whiplash-inducing speed. His compositions are equally dynamic, fragmenting the image into claustrophobic sub-frames by observing the action through doorways, stair railings, and rain-drenched windowpanes. The music is likewise maximalist, characterized by eerie strings, mournful woodwinds, and a mercilessly abused piano.

The over-the-top visual style and sound design perfectly complement the sensationalistic story, which revolves around the gradual deterioration of an affluent teacher’s idyllic domestic life following a brief affair with the eponymous servant. While the movie’s social commentary isn’t terribly nuanced and its central conflict often comes off as rather misogynistic (the male protagonist, for example, lacks any agency whatsoever in his own downfall; his role in the narrative is akin to driftwood, passively buffeted by the dueling currents of his wife’s materialism and his mistress’ insatiable lust), the plot is nevertheless thoroughly engrossing—bolstered by an irreverent, absurdist tone that frequently borders on darkly humorous (tragedy and comedy are, after all, two sides of the same coin).

The Housemaid is a true cinephile’s delight. Its thematic density and moral ambiguity inspired an entire generation of South Korean filmmakers (its influence on Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook in particular is plainly evident in every shot, every cut, every twist)—and that alone makes it absolutely essential.

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