Thursday 9 March 2017

The Housemaid (Hanyeo) (1960)

I have a certain affinity for Korea and Koreans. Through work I have visited Seoul many times and come to like it a lot. Going around is Seoul it is strange to think that this was not always a glitzy and modern place, that there was a time where Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world and that is not even that many years ago. Korea started this century as an occupied country and only just earned its freedom when it was thrown into a devastating war. Those were harsh times and it is no wonder that the first Korean entry on the List is as late as 1960.

At this time Koreans where eager to get out of the poverty and were very inspired by the West, most notably America. In that light Hanyeo, today’s movie, is an American thriller transplanted to Korea with a lot of focus on the necessity of earning wealth. Makes sense, no?

Hanyeo is a very effective movie. With obviously cheap tools (few sets and mediocre actors) the director Kim Ki-young is able to wrench an insane amount of intensity out of his ludicrous story. This is a horror thriller with a true monster who does not hesitate to kill and wreck to get what it wants and all that inside the home of a small family.

Dong-sik Kim (Kim Jin-kyu) is a musician teaching a class of women at a factory to sing. For some reason the women are madly in love with him. One girl sends him a love letter and is summarily dismissed from the factory and kills herself out of grief. A second one tries to get piano lessons from the musician and so enters his home.

At home Dong-sik Kim has a wife and two children. They just moved into a new house they can barely afford, but they are eager to get a high living standard and so the wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) sews at home and Dong-sik Kim accepts to take in the girl for piano lessons. However the wife is heavily pregnant so they decide to take in a housemaid and ask the piano girl to find one. And so she does… Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim), the housemaid, is a monster from the nether realms of hell. While Dong-sik Kim managed to deflect the first girl and barely manage to deflect the piano girl (although she is pretty) Myung-sook is not so easy to get rid of. She forces Kim Jin-kyo to have sex with her (she practically rapes him) and then use that as a tool against him and his family. She starts to kill them off and their attempts to get rid of her are hampered by their unwillingness to lose their hard-earned wealth.  

The problem with this movie is that it is way over the top. Everything is super exaggerated, there is always thunder when Myung-sook appears, she will typically be looking in through a window when it is least opportune and she is raving mad. All the while the conflict is in fact entirely unnecessary. The family have plenty opportunity to get rid of her early on and there were plenty of signs that she was very unstable. Even later when she starts killing off the family members their excuses for keeping her sounds hollow and lame. Yet depite these issues it is still a very entertaining movie because of the nerve mentioned above and because Lee Eun-shim is great as the demonic housemaid. She goes way further than you would normally see in an American erotic thriller and even in European one. She is raw lust and need and completely controlled by her animal instinct.

Had the story been tempered with a less ludicrous script this could have been a great movie. As it is it is fun despite itself and I found myself laughing out loud several time. That is great, I love that kind of movies, but this could have been a different and far more sinister movie with a bit of care.

Also the ending is one of the weirder ones…


  1. It is a weird one, and kind of horrific. I don't know if the ending makes it or ruins it. I can see it going either way.

    That said, I haven't sought it out to watch a second time and probably won't.

    1. There is a lot in this movie that works, but also a lot that does not. If it is the age, the budget or the cultural difference I do not know. And that ending is just bizarre.
      I doubt I will seek it out again.

  2. I'm with the majority here. I thought it was interesting but not something I would watch again. The ending bothers me less on reflection than it did at the time.

    1. "Interesting" is quite precise. I was curious more than horrified to see where this was going.