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A 'Housemaid' Snared In A Domestic Dilemma

Women fall through the air with some regularity in The Housemaid, Im Sang-soo's sleek but vacant makeover of Kim Ki-young's 50-year-old horror classic. Whether self-motivated or the victims of foul play, these tumbling females are both metaphor and decoration, their descents filmed with calm ennui and cold-hearted detachment. But for a single chalk outline on a teeming street, they might never have existed at all.

Erasure is, in fact, a major theme of the film, specifically that of the lower classes by their obscenely wealthy betters. But this is class critique served up as soft-core soap, a poorly structured and slackly paced slam of Korean privilege that turns Kim's fabulously nutty original on its head.

Where once we had a hardworking, middle-class household terrorized by a sexually ravenous servant, we now have an upper-class enclave conspiring to eradicate a naive victim. This transfer of power might be less of a problem had the director ignited some heat to go with his febrile passions and erotic compositions, but — its devotion to nudity notwithstanding — this fleshy morality play remains obstinately frigid from start to finish.

Set almost exclusively in the palatial home of Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), a preening, piano-playing businessman, and his heavily pregnant wife Hae-ra (Seo Woo), the film fashions a world of cold surfaces and even colder hearts. Into this gleaming den comes Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon), a sweet-faced maid happy to leave behind the tiny room and bed she shared with her best friend. Not even her demeaning duties — hand-washing Hae-ra's underwear and massaging her swollen belly — nor the flinty looks from the family's longtime housekeeper (veteran Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung) dampen Eun-yi's enthusiasm.

But scrubbing a dirty bathtub is a perfect opportunity to flash pristine white panties, and the combination of available behind and unavailable marital congress is soon too much for Hoon. Descending to Eun-yi's basement bedroom, wine glass in hand, he discovers that seduction is as effortless as the rest of his life. "I love that smell," groans Eun-yi, thrusting her face into his crotch. Maybe he smells like money.

For the rest of the movie, Hae-ra and her viperish mother (Park Ji-young) will plot to erase the growing consequence of paterfamilial lust while Eun-yi dithers and despairs. (Hoon, for his part, does little but play Beethoven and guzzle wine.) As confabs among the household harpies escalate to outright violence, it's clear that The Housemaid desperately wants to be a sexual thriller but doesn't know how. Feminist comedy might have been a better choice: In one scene, Hae-ra reads Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. She probably thinks it's about servants.

As it is, unable to generate tension or real perversity, Im's remake cries out for a lot more pulp and a lot less emotional restraint. It doesn't help that the house is like a mausoleum, its heavily stylized interiors bathed in streaky shadows and maleficent light. Lee Hyung-deok's cinematography is a sight to behold, but his crazily canting angles are wasted on a story so thin and characters so soulless.

And on a heroine with so little common sense. In the film's only amusing exchange, Hae-ra's mother and the housekeeper conspire on a park bench. "She's pure-hearted," admits the housekeeper, grudgingly referring to Eun-yi. "Like Dostoyevsky's idiot?" responds the snooty old bat. She got that right.

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Jeannette Catsoulis
A Scottish expat who believes that most problems can be solved by a single malt and a Swedish masseur, Jeannette Catsoulis found her film-writing career kick-started when an arts editor discovered she was the only person at his dinner table who knew who Ed Wood was.