With films like the erotic drama A Good Lawyer’s Wife and the irreverent satire The President’s Last Bang, Korean director Im Sang-soo has shown an interest in sex and power, and the toxic ways the two get intermingled. So it makes sense that he would be drawn to The Housemaid, a landmark 1960 Korean film about the consequences of a sexually aggressive live-in maid who blows a crater through the upper-class family that hires her. For his version, Im flips the script entirely, making the eponymous character a willing—though inscrutable—victim, almost entirely subject to her masters’ control. This re-conceptualization jibes with a movie like The President’s Last Bang, which is in part about a nation swept up in the unruly, uncontrollable forces of history, but it also feeds a thriller as frustratingly passive as its heroine.
Sexy and mysterious as a distant-eyed object of desire, Jeon Do-youn (Secret Sunshine) stars as a nanny who finds work at a lavish estate, where she does household chores and looks after a little girl whose mother (Seo Woo) is pregnant with twins. Jeon lives in the room next door to her young charge and naturally begins to insinuate herself among a family whose presence she never leaves. When the man of the house, a womanizing businessman (Lee Jung-Jae), takes an interest in Jeon, she’s all too open to his advances, in spite of the potentially devastating consequences of getting caught. The real lynchpin in this scenario, however, is Yun Yeo-jong, the longtime family housekeeper, who knows everything that happens under her watch, but whose loyalties are in question.
Once it becomes clearer that there’s perhaps less to Jeon than meets the eye, The Housemaid remains compelling mostly for Yun’s performance, which is just as inscrutable, but ever-shifting—at times vaguely sinister, at others full of wisdom and quiet resolve. Her housekeeper understands the players and the stakes well before everyone else does, and whenever she inserts herself into the action, the film bristles with dark possibility. Though impeccably photographed and acted, The Housemaid begins to feel stifling and airless once Im’s thesis about the abuses of the powerful starts to drive the film to a foregone conclusion. As Jeon’s choices narrow, the suspense diminishes in kind.