The auteurs.com is one of the best websites currently available for cinephiles. It features two main sections: a “notebook” area with a number of contributors, featuring a fine selection of reviews and great coverage of a number of major festivals (currently there are daily updates from Toronto); and a “films” area with a large selection of full-length streaming features. The movies that are available depend on your region, but in Korea there are many fine films, most of which are difficult to find here. Among the noted directors included on the site are: the Dardenne Brothers, Jafar Panahi, Kore-Eda Hirokazu, Alexander Sokurov, Philippe Garrel, Jan Svankmajer, Laurent Cantet, Gregg Araki, Jia Zhangke, Francois Ozon, and others. Each film is $3 dollars each, a very reasonable deal. Additionally, if you purchase $12 credits, you are given another $3 bonus. So for $12 you can watch 5 films. Thus far I have seen two excellent films: THE SON (The Dardennes Brothers, 2002) and THE MIRROR (Jafar Panahi, 1997), and the quality in both cases was very good. Even better, there are currently four free films on the site. They are all restorations sponsored in part by Martin Scorsese’s World Film Foundation: THE HOUSEMAID (Kim Ki-Young, 1960) (South Korea); DRY SUMMER (Metin Erksan, 1964) (Turkey); TOUKI BOUKI (Djibril Diop Mambety, 1973) (Senegal); and TRANSES (Ahamed El Maanouni, 1981) (Morocco). I first saw THE HOUSEMAID at the Jeonju Film Festival in May, and it remains the only classical Korean film I have currently seen. It is a fascinating film in the context of not only Korean society at the time, but also in relation to the rest of world cinema.
The director Kim Ki-Young worked most of his career making popular genre films, and enjoyed a great deal of popular success (THE HOUSEMAID was the top grossing film of the year). He had generally been forgotten until a 1997 retrospective at the Pusan Film Festival provoked a renewed interest in his career. In 2006, the prestigious Cinematheque Francais screened eighteen of his surviving twenty-two films. Unfortunately, ten of his films no longer exist. Kim stated before his 1998 death that his major regret was that none of his films had been properly preserved. Thus the restoration of THE HOUSEMAID was badly needed, and the results look fine. There are still a couple of reels that clearly were very damaged, but the entire film is now intact and mostly it looks very good, both on film and at theautuers website.
THE HOUSEMAID revolves around a middle-class family (husband, wife, son, daughter), recently moved into a two-story home. In order to help the mother, they hire a housemaid (played by the amazing Kim Eun-shim), who quickly wreaks havoc on their happy life. An anecdote has widely circulated about the film’s initial reception in Seoul. As Kim himself describes it: “The married women who came to see the movie were enraged by the maid, so much so that they got up from their seats and screamed, ‘Kill that wench!’” I found this extreme reaction rather stunning. First of all, the style of the film is very cool and distanced. Repeatedly Kim shoots from outside of the house, framing the characters through vertical window panes. There are a number of long shots, often showing the characters positioning within the hierarchy of the home, with repeated use of the staircase as a symbolic battleground. For anyone who has seen the 1950s Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk, the comparison is too striking to ignore. Like Sirk, Kim’s background is theatre, and there is something rather Brechtian about the whole exercise. This is most explicit with the great use of a framing device. The film begins with the family reading about the story in the newspaper. These same actors are then shown re-enacting the drama, and we return at the conclusion to the same family reflecting on the story we have just witnessed. The film ends with the male character directly addressing the audience, offering a sly warning to men about the dangers of young women. The self-conscious of the storytelling seems to deflect any kind of extreme audience response. However, this is coming from another distance, that of fifty years of time. And there are a number of horror film elements mixed with the melodrama that would have the effect of cranking up the emotional intensity.
The other reason the audience reaction was so surprising is that I believe the housemaid is the most sympathetic of all the characters. Also like Sirk, Kim seems much more invested in the “villain” of the story rather than the supposedly “good” family. Sirk called these villains the “secret owners” of his films, and the housemaid operates similarly here. All of the family members are rather unlikable, especially the young son, whose death carries very little emotional depth. If the housemaid commits horrible acts, the father and the mother are both equally guilty, as well as being hypocritical. Thus, I think that the reaction of the married women is not based on the point of view Kim provides, but rather on the symbolic violence being done to the traditional structure of society. The character of the housemaid clearly hit a nerve. Also, the married women who were so vocal in their hatred were also the audience members who would have been socially licenced to expressed their sympathies. One wonders about the single, working class women in the audience, unable to publicly express their allegiances but nevertheless taking secret pleasure in the anti-social behavior of their sister.
Those interested in Kim Ki-young should check out the collection edited by Kim Hong-joon, available at most English language bookstores as well as seoulselection.com.
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