It was a grounding shift from that evening's spectacular spotlight to my relaxed conversation with the convivial Im Sang-soo and his disappointingly laconic actors the following day at the Four Seasons (especially Jeon Do-yeon who deferred to her director on every count, such that I finally gave up addressing her directly). While waiting for my interview to begin, I was afforded the added pleasure of overhearing Marion Cotillard pointing to the poster for Little White Lies to advise her rapt friends exactly who among that film's male cast was gay. (Don't worry, boys, your secrets are safe with me!)
As synopsized for TIFF: "In this erotic thriller, the housemaid of an upper-class family becomes entangled in a dangerous tryst. A satirical look at class structure, reminiscent of the work of Claude Chabrol, this sexy soap opera is a story of revenge and retribution." At MUBI, David Hudson rounded up the multiple reviews from The Housemaid's international premiere at Cannes. For those who didn't catch Kim Ki-Young's original version at any one of a number of revival screenings this past year (including its appearance in the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival's "Out of the Vault" selection), MUBI has continued to offer Kim Ki-Young's original on free streaming video.
A reminder to Bay Area audiences that Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid will be screening in the World Cinema sidebar at the upcoming 33rd edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival.
Im Sang-soo was born in Seoul. He studied history at Yonsei University before enrolling at the Korean Academy of Film Arts. As a writer and director, his feature films include Girls' Night Out (1998), Tears (2001), A Good Lawyer's Wife (2003), The President's Last Bang (2005), and The Old Garden (2007). [This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]
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Michael Guillén: Recently, I had the opportunity to catch a revival screening of Kim Ki-Young's original version of The Housemaid at our Asian film festival in San Francisco and—now having seen your version of the story at last night's North American premiere at Roy Thompson Hall—I can express my admiration that your version is so different, that it's not really a remake at all, and that it's a true revisioning of the narrative. I commend you on that achievement.
I would, however, seek to explore those differences and why you decided to take the story in such a separate direction than the original and why you infused it with such an altogether distinct tone? What was the challenge for you in taking on Kim Ki-Young's much-beloved original?
Im Sang-soo: Kim Ki-Young's movie was made in 1960. The background of that film was its accurate description of the socio-economic environment at the time. The film emerged when Korea was just beginning to develop its middle class and many young women from the countryside would move to the city to work as housemaids for these burgeoning middle class families. I made my film different than the original because Korea's socio-economic environment has changed since then. These days, due to globalization, there is much more separation between the poor and the rich and the definition of the middle class has actually started to break down. Many Koreans who once thought of themselves as middle class—like Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) in my film—have started to self-destruct as the separation between rich and poor has increased, such that now there is a super-rich class, like the family where Eun-yi is employed. So, as you say, Kim Ki-Young's film is legendary and I wanted to challenge myself remaking it.
Guillén: But what specifically was it that you found challenging in readdressing the socio-economic issues first described by Kim Ki-Young?
Sang-soo: The challenge was exactly in describing how the socio-economic situation is changing in Korea. As throughout Asia, there is now an emergence of the super rich, which is offset against the fact that in the past 20 years those who are poor are becoming even poorer and having even more of a hard time of it. I wanted to challenge myself by showing this social problem.
Guillén: When Noah Cowan introduced the film at last night's gala, he dedicated it to Claude Chabrol who passed away yesterday. Cowan likened your film to Chabrol's "chilly thrillers"; however, you have likened your film to Alfred Hitchcock's style of suspense. Can you speak to what you feel you have borrowed from Hitchcock and brought into your film?
Sang-soo: In François Truffaut's interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Hitchcock talked about what he felt were the true elements of suspense. For example, when his characters are having a sexual relationship, they think no one knows; but, Hitchcock makes sure the audience knows. The suspense arises from the tension between what is believed to be unknown by the characters but is known by the audience.
Guillén: Speaking of sexual tension, The Housemaid heats up the auditorium. How do you direct such intimate scenes with your actors? How do you create that erotic environment on set? Do you work on a closed set?
Sang-soo: I worked with the sexual relationship between Eun-yi and her employer Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) so that it would be secretive and express the danger of their lust. I'm wondering, did you feel that?
Guillén: Definitely! My question, however, is more technical. I'm wondering how you contain the eroticism on set? Did this require a closed set so that the actors could indulge the intensity of the scenes?
Sang-soo: Usually, yes, it was a closed set but also it must be said that my actors are very professional. They could joke around with each before shooting; but, once the cameras started rolling, they took their direction quite seriously.
Guillén: The film's tag-line that "sometimes innocence becomes a menace" distinguishes the difference in character and tone that I noted between Kim Ki-Young's film and yours. In the original, I felt the maid was bad from the beginning but Jeon Do-yeon's performance is admirably multi-faceted and her character arc painfully enunciated. Why did you choose to focus on the—for lack of a better term—deflowering of her innocence?
Sang-soo: I actually don't think it's a "deflowering" of innocence because there is no person in the world who is innocent, per se. Eun-yi understood what was going on, she knew what was at stake in the situation and what the dynamics were within the house, but she went ahead and built up her hopes and enflamed her desires. Her revenge at film's end was a way to maintain her dignity in the face of her own choices.
Guillén: Jung-jae Lee, your character Hoon has to hold his own among a pride of lionesses, in effect; strong, beautiful, cruel women. How did you pull out of yourself the necessary strength to match these women?
Jung-jae Lee: Through unexpected behavior.
Guillén: How do you mean "unexpected"?
Jung-jae Lee: That the character himself would even think of having sexual relations with the housemaid in the presence of his family indicates that he possesses this strength.
Guillén: A strength which could probably be more accurately characterized as arrogant privilege. My favorite nuance in your characterization of Hoon was—when discovering that his wife and his mother-in-law have had Eun-yi's baby aborted—rather than being concerned with her welfare, he is indignant that this action was taken without his knowledge or compliance. For a moment you almost feel compassion for him, for his loss, and yet you realize it's mainly pride on his part and no sense of genuine care for Eun-yi.
Jung-jae Lee: I think every human being is capable of such selfishness and duplicity, pretending to put someone else's interests first but thinking only of themselves.
Guillén: With that arrogant privilege in mind, let's turn to how it has been represented in the film's production design. If your challenge to yourself, Im Sang-soo, was to depict the increasing divide between the poor and the super-rich, you have staged it excellently in this house where Eun-yi comes to work as a maid. The house is amazingly designed, not the least of which is its collection of paintings scattered throughout. They telegraph a sense of unbridled acquisition true to Hoon's privileged character. Clearly this was your intention? Can you speak to how you came up with the vision of the house?
Sang-soo: Just as in all the super-rich homes in Europe, Korea and Asia, what these people try to do is to copy the traditional European lifestyle: drinking good wines, collecting paintings, listening to opera. Myself, I find it questionable that this would be a life they genuinely enjoy or if it's not more for show.
Guillén: I don't want to give away the film's shocking and spectacular set piece ending; however, I am interested in the rhyme between the film's introductory scene where the young woman jumps off the high building to her death and Eun-yi's suicide. What are you trying to say by that framing rhyme?
Sang-soo: People don't know why the young woman in the first scene has committed suicide. These people witness the suicide and then they forget about it. It's possible that at film's end when Eun-yi commits suicide that people in the neighborhood heard about the housemaid committing suicide but then—just as easily as in the first instance—they will forget about it. The point is that—even though throughout the movie it is never explained why the young woman in the first scene committed suicide—she has a story. We just don't know about it like we know about Eun-yi's story. Suicide has become much more frequent in Korea as the economy has become unstable.
Guillén: My final question, then. The coda to the film is a nearly surreal and extremely stylized set piece that proves unsettling for being so ambivalent. Can you offer a bit of insight as to what you wanted the audience to take away from that scene?
Sang-soo: There has been a lot of controversy surrounding that last scene. Even one of the producers wanted it deleted. Many people complain about it. But without that scene, I think the movie would have been just so-so. I went with my gut feeling and included it. It's a simple set-up: they're giving a birthday party to a little girl who just witnessed something terrible and trying to cover up her trauma with expensive gifts. I wanted audiences to wonder if she could truly heal from such an event?
Cross-published on Twitch.