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The Housemaid: Im Sang-Soo

Director Im Sang-Soo revisits a creepy Korean classic, this time directing his focus on the world of the fabulously wealthy.



Great directors understand that suspense is not forced—it builds. It grows, organically, like an organism slowly taking over the film it has been planted into. For whatever reason, to generalize, Asian thriller/horror filmmakers tend to understand this axiom slightly better than their American counterparts. Whereas American directors often tend to want to crank the suspense up by any means necessary, and in noticeable fits and starts, Asian directors seem much more content to let the pace of the film naturally find its way.


Such is the case in The Housemaid, Im Sang-Soo’s remake of the 1960 Korean classic of the same name. Updated to target the new Korean super-rich as opposed to the then-burgeoning middle class, Sang-Soo’s film draws as creepy a portrait of the world of the fabulously wealthy as one is likely to find in recent years. The Housemaid’s plot is simple enough: it centers on Eun-yi (Jeon Do-Yeon), a thirtysomething woman in need of work. She gets a job as a nanny to an absurdly wealthy family, caring for their young daughter. The wife, Hae-ra (Seo Woo) is pregnant with two more children. Things are going smoothly enough until Eun-yi and Hoon, the man of the house, commence an affair, at which point Hae-ra and her vengeful mother begin plotting a way to get even with Eun-yi.




I had the chance to sit down with Sang-Soo at the Soho Grand recently, to talk a bit about the making of the film.




Tribeca: What prompted you to want to remake The Housemaid?


Im Sang-Soo: The film is a legendary film in Korean film history. It transcends time, in a way. I wasn’t particularly, personally fascinated with it, but I thought that by having an occasion to remake it, I might be able to deal with class issues in a more pointed way, for a new age.


Tribeca: So when you say you could deal with it in a more pointed way, do you mean that because everyone knows how the story goes in the original film, by changing things around you could make a very pointed commentary about how things have changed in the last 50 years?


Im Sang-Soo: Although it is a very legendary film, I think it’s true that not many people in the younger generation in Korea have seen the original. Even though many people say that it’s a remake, and it’s been portrayed that way, personally, I think it’s a completely different film from the original. I might have brought some motives from the original film, but that’s it.




Tribeca: What were some of those motives, the changes you wanted to make?

Im Sang-Soo: Back in 1960, the Korean society was just experiencing the creation of a middle class. The middle class didn’t exist before, and the family in the film represents the typical middle-class family of that area. Young women and men were coming up from rural areas to urbanize Seoul, working for very cheap wages, doing manual labor and other cheap things. It’s been 50 years. Nowadays in Korea, everyone believes they’re in the middle class. There are the very super-rich people, like the family in my film, who are on a different level. Jeon Do-Yeon’s character is coming from the middle-class mentality into a super-rich environment. Another difference is that in the original, the man is the aggressor in the relationship, but he has feelings of guilt, and fear that he might be exposed, that his family might be exposed to the consequences of his actions. In my film, in our time, this man is the aggressor, and he has no guilt at all. He doesn’t fear the consequences, he doesn’t have regard for those fears or concerns at all.




Tribeca: It’s interesting, because sometimes when you watch a film that takes place in a culture you’re not intimately familiar with, you wonder how much of the characters’ behavior to chalk up to cultural mores, and how much to chalk up to the individuals themselves. How much of a realistic portrayal of Korean society is the film, in terms of the sexism in the film, that Hoon has no regard for his wife’s feelings, and that his wife goes after the maid, but not her husband?


Im Sang-Soo: It’s been said about the film that the characters are caricatures, that they’re exaggerated. I rather feel that these are realistic people, realistic characters. When you drill down to it, I would say that there’s a super-rich class of people in Korea, and sadly, many of those people are ruling the country. Something like this might feel foreign to you, a New Yorker watching this film who isn’t too familiar with the society, but the fact that there are these super-rich people who do whatever they want, I think that idea might be of a varying degree in different cultures, but the general idea is a universal one. Hoon is super-rich, but he’s also quite mean about it. I think that might be attributed to the fact that in Korea, the history of the rich isn’t a very long one. Of course, there are rich people who have good intentions, but in Korea, the rich usually turn out to not have the best intentions. Because their tradition of having wealth is not so long, they’re lacking the responsibility and ethics that comes with being wealthy.


the Housemaid


Tribeca: I thought it was interesting how you used the aesthetics of the home – the opulent, beautiful home—and turned the home into a place that felt ominous, rather than luxurious and beautiful.


Im Sang-Soo: You could say that the house itself is probably one of the most important characters in the film. Such a place that’s so opulent and extravagant—there’s very few people that live like that in Korea. And the people who do live like that are purposefully setting themselves away from the general populace. They are mimicking a more European, idealized way of life, but they can’t fully grasp what that means. There’s a fad of collecting very expensive works of art, amongst these people. But I think living like that, after I’ve looked into such houses and such families, oftentimes many of these people are never truly content with themselves. The homes are very specific sites of fights between husband and wife, brother and sister. It’s a common place for division among families. It’s funny—after the shoot, our production designer got many phone calls from super-rich people on the southern half of Seoul, asking him to do their own homes.




Tribeca: To touch upon the central narrative element, Eun-yi’s affair with Hoon—how much of that do you think comes from Eun-yi feeling pressured, as Hoon is her employer, and how much of it do you think comes from a genuine desire on her behalf?


Im Sang-Soo: There was a lot of controversy about this film. One of the reasons was that more conservative women said they couldn’t identify with the main character, because she didn’t resist Hoon’s advances at least once. What I believe is that she was acting completely on her own desires. She may look and act naïve, but she is not naïve at all—she is completely cognizant of the absurdity of the relationship she has been thrust into in this family. She knows that any act of resistance she makes is not going to change the situation. In that moment, she acts upon her own desires – this wasn’t forced, but rather, there’s a possibility that she was intrigued by the fact that this is the kind of person she might never be able to interact with again, especially in bed.


The Housemaid opens on Friday, January 21 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center.


Watch the trailer:



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