Gorgeously shot, yet so cold and detached it's hard to connect with, The Housemaid is a stylish melodrama that indulges in Hitchcockian iciness but only gets really interesting in its final over-the-top moments. Until then, director Im Sang-soo serves up a perverse family soap opera spiced with a social critique that's about as subtle as a battering ram. Don't get me wrong, I like a bitter tirade against the unfeeling decadence of the rich as much as the next guy, but Im's film is more concerned with technical perfection, brooding menace, and soapy histrionics than delivering a meaningful satire on class warfare.
A remake of a 1960's Korean classic, The Housemaid introduces us to Eun-yi, a simple young woman who is hired by a wealthy family to be their new nanny and housekeeper. Little does she know, she's about to enter a domestic snake pit. There's the precocious little girl, Nami (Ahn Seo-hyun), who takes a shine to her, the gorgeously pregnant and pampered wife Haera (Seo Woo), and the urbane, classic piano-playing master-of-the-house, Hoon (Lee Jung-jae). Melodrama being what it is, it isn't long before handsome-but-entitled Hoon starts to view Eun-yi as his sexual plaything, a role the girl seems all too willing to accept. The situation quickly devolves from there as Eun-yi gets pregnant and the ladies of the manor (Haera and her Lady Macbeth-like mother) scheme to force her into an abortion — any way they can.
Watching from the sidelines is the family's long-suffering senior housekeeper, Mrs. Cho, who seethes with resentment and an ingrained sense of obligation. Through her we witness the way the rich abuse their power, inflicting themselves on the poor without consequence. Will she protect her employer's interests or protect the girl from them? It's potentially meaty stuff, but Im settles on the obvious, choosing instead to accentuate the film's lurid plotting while never making clear whether Eun-yi is dangerously nave or mentally impaired. Without proper context, her inability to protect herself and seemingly willful lack of awareness become frustrating plot devices. Jeon Do-yeon's remarkable performance hints that her character is dull-witted, but the narrative cards are too stacked against her and you end up shaking your head in disapproval at her increasingly foolish behavior.
The rest of the cast is uniformly good, but it's Yoon Yeo-jeong's Mrs. Cho that impresses most, as she expertly balances contempt for and duty to the family she's served for so many years. Her slowly emerging humanity begs for a film all its own.
Im is an impeccable craftsman with a sly sense of humor, but, much as he did with The President's Last Bang, he lets atmosphere and sleek, perfectly composed images overshadow his film's more ambitious leanings. Erotically charged and always watchable, The Housemaid goes limp on subtext, blunting its satiric edges with eccentrically stylized choices, not the least of which is a climax that seems inspired by The Omen.
In its very final moments, The Housemaid's hysterics give way to a Lynchian coda that pinpoints the collateral damage filthy rich Hoon and Haera have inflicted on their daughter. It's an incongruous and intriguing final image that suggests what Im's movie might have been but, unfortunately, not what is was.
Starts Wednesday, Feb. 16, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.