• Directed by IM Sang-soo
• Cast JEON Do-youn , LEE Jung-jae, YOUN Yuh-jung, SEO Woo
By Jean NOH
With an absurdist and critical eye on Korean society, IM Sang-soo is no stranger to controversy – whether it’s dealing with risqué subjects as in A Good Lawyer’s Wife or political hot buttons as with The President’s Last Bang. Now he has taken on KIM Ki-young’s watershed classic The Housemaid (1960) and turned it into an idiosyncratic remake to premiere in the Cannes festival’s Competition.
KIM’s gritty, black-and-white original featured a genteel but struggling middle class family whose patriarch starts an affair with their housemaid. When she gets pregnant by him and is forced to have an abortion, she becomes unhinged and takes revenge on the family, wreaking havoc and terror. The Housemaid is often cited as representative of the post-war malaise Koreans felt at the time, with Confucian order falling apart and women gaining power in society. The film was re-mastered and screened in Cannes 2008 with the support of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation and the Korean Film Archive.
IM has created his own 21st century take on the story, with lavish production design and a plot twist that might dismay loyal fans of the original, but is nevertheless intriguing.
The film stars JEON Do-youn in the eponymous lead, returning to Cannes since 2007 when she won t he Best Actress Award for her performance in LEE Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine. LEE Jung-jae, who starred in films such as the blockbuster Typhoon and the romantic Il Mare (later remade into the Hollywood film The Lakehouse), plays the patriarch. Veteran actress YOUN Yuh-jung from A Good Lawyer’s Wife plays another housekeeper with SEO Woo from PARK Chan-ok’s recent drama Paju plays the betrayed wife.
KIM Ki-young’s original The Housemaid is such a lauded classic. How was it that you came to work on the remake and what was that like?
The project was originally planned without me. It had a scriptwriter and director but it wasn’t really making progress. I was asked, and ended up participating in the middle of it. It was only as I started scriptwriting and shooting that I realized I had gotten myself into a project that was more important than I had thought. The reason for that is KIM Ki-young’s The Housemaid is a film that – transcending Korean cinema history – is extraordinary in world cinema history. And I was making a film based on that.
One might argue your film is so different from the original that it’s barely a remake.
If you think about it, Mr. KIM was much younger when he made his film than I am now. I think it might be interesting to compare the directors of these films that way. Also, materially, I had a lot more to work with than he had back then for the art direction and so on, although that’s not as important.
Most of all, his was a film from the 60s, with the background of the social and economic circumstances following the Korean War, when the middle class was just emerging. Young women and men came to Seoul from the countryside to work in factories, and back then, many middle class families had “shikmo” [a domestic woman helper who worked mostly in the kitchen]. I didn’t grow up in a rich family, but we also had a shikmo who had come to Seoul from the country. So the socio-economic context Mr. KIM was working with was very different from the socio-economic context of today.
Today – not just in Korea but globally, there are people who are much richer than the so-called middle-class, much richer than we could have imagined before. They drink wine worth tens of thousands of dollars in a single night, collect expensive pieces of art. In the meantime, we’ve also seen the emergence of neo-liberalism. Poor people get poorer and the bottom is falling out for the middle class so that a new impoverished class is forming.
What I did was: I took the same events that happened in a household, and thought about how Koreans 50 years ago would react and how Koreans 50 years later would react. What has changed and what hasn’t?
It was immensely fascinating to contemplate the mentality of Koreans this way while working on this film. Now that it’s finished, I wonder if people viewing my film will take into consideration the question I’ve raised.
It’s more than just the socio-economic dynamics that are different in the remake.
That’s true. KIM Ki-young’s original is more a thriller than suspense. You know what HITCHCOCK said about suspense. If someone comes into a room where a bomb goes off, that’s a surprise. But if someone secretly sets up a bomb in a room the audience is watching, then people come in and play poker, and the audience is worrying about the poker players getting out before the bomb explodes – that’s suspense.
The two have sex without the wife knowing it. When the audience sees them all together, they are thinking of the betrayed wife, the man and the woman who have had sex, and then there’s someone who knows they have had sex that the man and the woman don’t know about. And then there’s the pregnancy that I thought only I knew about but then the others know about and so on. Viewers get involved in something that on surface isn’t a tremendous story, and creating that process is fascinating to me.
I thought it would be interesting if I faithfully followed the giant, HITCHCOCK, in his thinking while making this film.
Tell us about the casting.
The most important role was the housemaid that JEON Do-youn played. I hadn’t worked with her before and wasn’t
at all acquainted with her, but the [production] company wanted her for business reasons. We had a meal together before I started writing the script and I wrote it with her in mind. At first, she refused to take the part after reading the script. We had differences in interpreting it. Maybe she thought the film was too dark. But a few days later she reversed her decision.
LEE Jung-jae’s male lead wasn’t a very big one. We weren’t thinking of a star on his level for the part, but we met at a social occasion and he told me he had read the script and thought the character was interesting. He said he thought, ‘It’s a small part, but I want to try it because it’s IM Sang-soo.’ YOUN Yuh-jung – well you know she was “a KIM Ki-young actress” when she was young. She starred in several of his films. To have her in the remake of one of his films 50 years later was, for me, fantastic casting.
What was it that happened with JEON Do-youn and what was it like once you started working together?
She said she watched A Good Lawyer’s Wife again and thought the kind of acting I asked of my actors was a bit different from the kind of acting she did. In my films, I give my actors a certain situation and ask them to be as natural and as dry as they can within that situation, not expressing too much.
JEON Do-youn, as I understood it, liked to have focus on the actor, that is, focus on the actor’s emotions so that they could give a passionate performance.
I thought she hit the nail on the head. I had been thinking the same thing and that it might be a problem when we started shooting. But she brought it up first and so I said, you do it your way and I’ll do it my way, and we’ll see what we get when we collide.
At first, she had a very hard time. She knew the character Eun-yi very well and had a lot of things she wanted to express, but I limited it and only let her do just what was needed and then cut out.
But I explained to her that these things would accumulate. I asked her to trust and follow me a little bit more. We kept shooting, and she began to feel it, too, that these things would accumulate, one on top of the other within the film, and it became more efficient from then on.
How do you feel about going to Cannes again?
To a lot of the film directors in the world, going to Cannes is not everything. It’s not important whether you screen your film in Cannes or not. To a director from faraway Asia, who shoots films like this, it’s probably more important.
What do you mean by “films like this”?
Films that have strong social, economic and political context, which are much less genre-driven, and have difficulty making a profit in their own domestic market. Generally speaking, that is.
What are you working on next?
I want to make a film that develops the male lead character from The Housemaid. In this film, you only see him inside the house, and don’t know what he does for a living. You see he is a very rich man who drinks expensive wine, collects art, and plays Beethoven before he leaves for work. He wants to be noble. But outside the house, he is involved with criminal elements and even murder. I would make this one in the Hitchcockian tradition as well.
Synopsis Eun-yi, a middle-aged divorcee, is hired as an upper class family housemaid. But soon enough, master of the house Hoon takes advantage of his social position by slipping into her sheets. Hoon’s visits become frequent and Byung-sik, an old housemaid, reports the affair to Hae-ra’s mother Mi-hee, who plots to give Hae-ra the control over her husband. Soon Eun-yi miraculously becomes pregnant and wants to keep the baby. This is discovered by the family and she’s forced to have an abortion by Mi-hee despite Eun-yi’s plea to let her keep the baby and leave the house. Mi-hee’s plot backfires when Hoon scrutinizes her for terminating his child, even if that child is conceived illegitimately. Her forced abortion turns Eun-yi’s mental condition for the worst and she decides to take the matter into her own hands.
IM Sang-soo’s Films
Girls’ Night Out (1998)
Cast KANG Soo-yeon, JIN Hee-gyoung, KIM Yeo-jin
IM Sang-soo made his directorial debut with Girls’ Night Out, a sexy and controversial drama about three very different but modern young women who meet for three dinners to discuss the intimate details of their lives and fantasies shown in between. Asked why he chose this subject to write and direct as his feature debut, he said, “Back then, you had a choice of violence, foolish comedies, foolish melodrama, or sex. It wasn’t much of a choice, so I went with sex.”
Cast HAN Jun, PARK Yeon-soo, BONG Tae-gyu, CHO Eun-ji
A disturbing look at the lives of teenage delinquents, the decidedly un-commercial Tears follows two girls and two boys as they work at a hostess bar, taking different kinds of abuse as runaways and abusing one another as well. “I had written the script for Tears first, it was only because I had gotten a certain amount of commercial success with my first film, that I was able to keep this one from becoming waste paper,” commented IM.
A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003)
Cast MOON So-ri, HWANG Jung-min, YOUN Yuh-jung
A mature story about sex, family, loss and betrayal, A Good Lawyer’s Wife starred MOON So-ri as the wife of a lawyer played by HWANG Jung-min who is stuck in a rut but having unfettered sex with a younger woman. His bored and frustrated wife in turn dallies with the teenage boy next door while his mother, played by YOUN Yuh-jung, declares at the age of 60 that it’s about time she’s had some romance – and an orgasm. In the midst of their collective philandering, a shocking accident befalls the family and their beloved adopted son is killed. “I saw Happy End [JUNG Ji-woo’s film starring JEON Do-youn] and realized, ‘Koreans like stories about affairs!’ All these aunties and uncles around me at the cinema were loving it. But A Good Lawyer’s Wife probably wasn’t the kind of affair movie they had in mind,” said IM of his dark, but sharp and lucid film.
The President’s Last Bang (2005)
Cast HAN Seok-gyu, BAEK Yoon-sik, SONG Jae-ho
The most controversial film of 2005, The President’s Last Bang was IM’s dramatization of the events that surrounded military dictator PARK Chung-hee’s assassination on the night of Oct. 26, 1979. Although no real names were used, the black comedy was based on the facts of President PARK’s assassination by his own Central Intelligence Agency Director in during a private dinner with young women entertainers, alcohol and singing. Conservative right-wing furor ensued over the film, and PARK’s heirs took the producers to court to ban the film on grounds of character defamation. By court order, it was released in theaters without the documentary footage at the opening of the Busan-Masan protests and at the closing of PARK’s funeral, so as not to “confuse” viewers about the fictionality of the film. IM had to have a bodyguard when attending promotional events. The judgment was later successfully appealed but by that time it was too late to make much difference in screenings.
The Old Garden(2007)
Cast JI Jin-hee, YUM Jung-ah
Based on HWANG Seok-young’s popular serialized novel, The Old Garden tells the story of Hyun-woo, a former student democracy activist who emerges from prison after 17 years to find a mundane and superficial world. He visits the place where he hid from the authorities, harbored by Yoon-hee, a beautiful woman who became his lover and who later died while he was away. He remembers the days of romance, desperation, fear and guilt hidden away with her while his comrades were picked up, tortured and imprisoned. Eventually, reading her diary he finds out how she was the last to remain faithful to him to the end. He also discovers her last gift to him, a daughter. “People who loved the original novel complained the film did not live up to their expectations, but as with The Housemaid remake, I think once you adapt or remake something, it becomes something else again,” says IM.