As passionate and engaging as Korean filmmaker Im Sang-soo is in conversation, the answer he gave to my first question took me by surprise. He’s clearly a confident chap, not only in taking on perhaps the most famous and respected work in Korean cinema but also in his readiness to dismiss one of his country’s cinematic icons, positioning himself from the start as not “a fan”. Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (Hanyo, 1960), which he has adapted this year, is by general consensus one of the most revered Korean films of all time, and watching it again yesterday (in a double bill with Sang-soo’s remake I hasten to add), it’s not hard to see why it’s reputation has continued to grow over the last fifty years. A shocking, nightmarish vision of adultery and obsessive psychosis, it’s a thoroughly modern film seemingly well ahead of its time, depicting an affair between a middle class school teacher and his eponymous newly employed maid. Children are thrown down stairs, lovelorn suicides abound and whilst there’s nary a sympathetic character, it’s shot through with enough unpredictable turns of perverse impulsiveness and violence that it’s impossible not to be seduced by even the most histrionically melodramatic beats.
I can understand Im Sang-soo’s wish to separate himself from such a prominently damoclean work, but it’s a foolhardy task. Comparisons will be inevitable, and judging from his take on the story, a touch of modesty might have engendered a little more sympathy towards his adaptation. It’s not a terrible film by any means, simply unnecessary, adding little to the story aside from a glossy production design and a shallow socio-economical subtext, still present in Kim Ki-young’s film but deployed much more subtly than the achingly obvious critique of class divisions and social resentments on display here. It plays closer to the American ‘erotic thrillers’ by the likes of Adrian Lyne and Brian De Palma in the ‘80s and ‘90s, eschewing the overriding weirdness of the original for a more mainstream and conventional genre sensibility.
It’s a shame in a way, his choosing this as his sixth feature, as his previous works have shown a promise at odds with what is essentially a remake in the most cynically American sense (taking an established property for adaptation means an already curious, if not expectant audience) yet his earlier films have shown a keen eye for both subversive political enquiries (The President’s Last Bang) and frank explorations of sexuality, particularly from a female perspective (Girl’s Night Out, A Good Lawyer’s Wife).
Jeon Do-yeon (Secret Sunshine) gives a committed central performance as the new maid but the supposed magnetism of Lee Jung-jae as the husband is seemingly bolted onto the character simply by virtue of his patriarchal status rather than uncovered in any sense through performance, and Kim Ki-young veteran Yoon Yeo-jeong (Woman of Fire, The Insect Woman) is a relentless scene-stealer, which I don’t intend as a compliment. The comparisons to Chabrol and Hitchcock that have been applied are overly generous, it’s too studied and affected in its execution for that, but Lee Hyung-deok’s stately cinematography does make the most of Lee Ha-jun’s opulent production design and the narrative denouement is satisfyingly startling, even if it is let down by a nonsensical coda of surrealist whimsy.
It was interesting to hear about the conditions of Korean filmmaking prior to the ‘90s New Wave, and irrespective of this filmmaker’s opinion, I’ll certainly be digging deeper into Kim Ki-young’s back catalogue at the first opportunity, as hard as many of his films are to come by. Whilst this interpretation of The Housemaid is engaging enough, it’s pleasures are mostly of a superficial, aesthetic nature and provide little beyond the occasionally well-crafted image (even these often overcooked) , and pales in comparison to the1960 original which I can’t recommend highly enough, especially as it’s currently available for free at www.mubi.com, whose new Playstation 3 application launched last week and will guarantee the loss of many evenings in the coming months.
With so many films being remade these days, it’s a brave choice to tackle a film of such high regard in Korean cinema. What was the genesis of your decision to reinvent such an established classic?
There are many fans of director Kim Ki-young amongst the young filmmakers working today, but personally I’m not one of them. Although his works are legendary and have had a remarkable impact on the Korean film industry, as a young filmmaker myself I felt I couldn’t simply obey and respect the general consensus, I felt I had to challenge it.
What was your reason for changing the socio-economic setting of the film, placing it in the household of an aristocratic family rather than the middle-class home of the teacher in Kim Ki-young’s film?
England has a great sense of history and tradition behind its notion of society, and although Korea has its own history, it’s a country that has been divided since the war, so South Korea’s social identity hasn’t been around quite so long. Every society has it’s ‘aristocracy’, it’s ‘rich man’s society’, but the less amount of time this ‘high society’ has been around, the more problematic it becomes, it’s influence is all the more overbearing. In Korea today, it’s the super-rich who dictate the way the country is heading, politically and socially, they’re the ones behind the curtain pulling the strings and my version of The Housemaid is an anthropological study of those hidden behind said curtain. It’s something I wish to pursue in future films.
There’s certainly a clear political subtext in all of your films, much more so than many of your contemporaries, even this one which is perhaps the closest you’ve come to making a genre film. Do you consider yourself to be a political filmmaker or is it something that naturally comes out in the writing process, something unavoidable when setting your film in a contemporary context?
I am a very political person, which I guess makes me a political filmmaker. As one of the major filmmakers in Korea this is quite dangerous for me working within the mainstream market. I can’t discuss these things when I’m doing interviews with Korean journalists, I normally just say The Housemaid is a genre film, but even though I say this they know it’s not true. The fact that I don’t discuss my politics and that the journalists over there know not to ask is just another reflection of how powerful the super-rich have become within Korean society.
The film begins and ends with a suicide, the first being a girl of whom we learn little else, the audience seem to forget about her in the same way the family forget about Eun-yi at the end. Why did you choose to begin the film with this scene in particular?
A girl does jump from a building, committing suicide, and we are momentarily shocked, but we forget and we never know why as the story of our protagonists begins. That story however, is also about why our protagonist commits suicide at the end, and when that happens you think back to the first, naturally thinking that this girl must also have had a story as sad as the one we’ve seen. This current age of globalisation has resulted in many super-rich people across the globe, but it remains the case that poverty has become much worse as a result as well, and it’s a sad fact that many of the impoverished are committing suicide, notably so in Korea.
Can you speak a little about the final sequence of the film, what your intentions were? It’s a highly stylised scene, almost surreal.
We ran out of money, so there wasn’t a lot we could do (laughs). My friend had lent me a very expensive painting of Marilyn Monroe and although it doesn’t play a huge part in the film, at the child’s birthday party, because the child has experienced such trauma they give her this expensive painting as a gift. The mother sings in the same way Monroe sang to JFK as a way of relieving the tension of what the child has been through. Whether this will actually cure the child, who having seen the suicide of the housemaid will take something from it, or whether she’ll ultimately become a monster like her father is up to the audience to decide.
Do you have much time to rehearse with your actors prior to shooting? Are you happy for your actors to improvise or find their own way once on set, or are you quite clear in what you want beforehand?
It depends on both the film and the actors. With this film there wasn’t much by way of script readings or rehearsals, especially with Jeon Do-yeon. But with the little girl, Lee Jung-jae and the young mother, I called them in separately to rehearse a little, so it really does depend on the actors you’re working with. Once we’re on set, I’m not keen on actors improvising their own dialogue but I do change a lot of the script myself as we’re going along.
Your films often deal in a very frank way with female sexuality, something matched by the fearless performances from your lead actresses, the wonderful So-ri Moon in A Good Lawyer’s Wife, the trio of women in Girl’s Night Out and again Jeon Do-yeon in The Housemaid. What is it that draws you towards exploring sexuality from a female perspective rather than a male? The men seem to get short shrift in your films, is that intended as a commentary on the social patriarchalism of Korean society?
Frank depictions of sexuality are a characteristic of my work. There’s a perception that Asians are shy and introverted, in particular Asian women, so I’m trying to subvert or critique that stereotype by saying that New Asian women do talk, and must talk about sex. It’s not that they’re shy because they don’t have anything to say, which I hope my films express. Male patriarchalism and machismo doesn’t just oppress women, it’s also detrimental to society as a whole and is definitely something I feel must be suppressed.
You’ve spoken of the influence of Alfred Hitchcock in the making of The Housemaid. What exactly did you take from his work that you wanted to inject into your film? Were there particular films or sequences that were especially influential, or was it just an overall tone you were aiming for?
Rebecca was a huge influence, I first saw it when I was ten years old and watched it again in preparation for The Housemaid. Hitchcock’s notion of suspense was something that I researched and contemplated a great deal when planning this movie. For example, if this were a scene in a film, where we are now, and there was a bomb underneath this table here and it suddenly exploded, that would create surprise rather than suspense. In order to create suspense you’d have to show the bomb being planted first. We’d be having this discussion as before but the audience would be aware that the bomb was there. It’s the sense of anticipation that Hitchcock defines as suspense and which I tried to incorporate into the film. The audience know that the housemaid and the husband have had sex, but his wife doesn’t, so when she finds out and the housemaid is unaware that she now knows, it creates a sense of suspense for the audience, not knowing how the ostensibly simple story will resolve itself dramatically.
There’s a tradition the world over when a new generation of filmmakers take up the mantle of their predecessors, often moving the cinema of their particular country in a new direction, a kind of rebellion against what came before. Aside from Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and maybe Aimless Bullet, it’s difficult to see much Korean cinema in the West prior to the so-called New Wave of the early ‘90s. What is your relationship to your Korean predecessors, did you take much from them when forging your own career, or would you say that Western cinema was a greater influence on your own style?
It’s true that a new generation of filmmakers arose in the ‘90s and that the films from before then are not known outside of Korea. Exactly at the same moment that this new wave was taking place, Korea became politically stabilised via democracy and capitalism, through which there were also new developments in literature and other forms of culture from an emerging generation of artists. At the same time though, film beforehand was controlled not by the mafia exactly, but by street gangs who were more or less in charge of all facets of production and it was almost impossible for good filmmakers to develop. Those who grew up watching European and American cinema became the new generation of intellectuals, eventually given the opportunity for their voices to be heard. In Germany and France the next generation of filmmakers and artists would produce manifestos for change, but in Korea, due to the power exerted by the street gangs, that was nigh on impossible. It still exists to a certain degree today.
What were the main differences in Kim Soo-hyun’s original draft of the screenplay for The Housemaid? Why did you choose to go in your own direction?
You’ve really done your research! (laughs). Kim Soo-hyun is a legendary writer, but it was the producer who initially asked her to write the screenplay as the film was having difficulty getting off the ground. The writer then specified myself as director, which is how I initially got involved, but I didn’t like her script at all so I told the producer that if I’m to be involved, I need to be able to rewrite the script myself and only on that condition would I continue to direct. So I did, I completely rewrote it. Whether my version or Kim Soo-hyun’s is better? Well the investors preferred mine, and it’s my script that ultimately got made! She’s a very powerful and influential writer, but also very arrogant, she was furious that a young director like Im Sang-soo would dare change her work (laughs)
Photography by Christopher Lane © 2010