On Kim Ki-young’s breakthrough noir thriller, and the Golden Age of South Korean cinema.
The Housemaid plays 7 Ludlow as part of Kim Ki-young x2.
Kim Ki-young’s 1960 The Housemaid ends as it begins, observing the scene of a mild domestic tiff on a rainy night between a married couple, the Kims (husband Kim Jin-kyu and wife Ju Jeung-ryu), in the cramped parlor of the home that they share with their two young children. The dispute is over a newspaper item about a man in Gimcheon committing adultery with his maid; Mrs. Kim responds to the news with an air of weary contempt (“Men are hopeless…”), and takes a chastening tone when her spouse exhibits a little too much psychological insight into how such a thing might come to pass—and once The Housemaid has come full circle, we’ve seen exactly how it does, and how one lapse in judgement can light a fuse under an orderly household.
That an extramarital affair should be considered an item for the papers gives some indication of the strict public policing of private morality and the taboo attached to infractions of the matrimonial bond in c. 1960 South Korea—still today one of the most difficult places in the world to file for divorce. This is further reinforced by the scenes that immediately follow, introducing Mr. Kim at his workplace. As the music teacher who oversees a “singing club” at a textile mill staffed almost entirely by women, the rather stiff Mr. Kim is something of a heartthrob among the girls who live in the factory dormitories and apparently have few other outlets for their romantic fantasies. The strict rules of comportment governing relations between men and women—and enforced fear of the repercussions for ignoring them—are such that when one young woman, Seon-young (Ko Seon-ae), appears to slip Mr. Kim a lovelorn mash note, he feels duty-bound as a married man to report the incident to management, leading to her temporary suspension and a lingering humiliation that ultimately proves fatal. This following of protocol will be the loose thread that eventually unravels the skein of the Kims’ tranquil family life, for the world of the film is one where no bad deed—however socially encouraged that bad deed may be—goes unpunished.
The cyclical structure that the abovementioned “bookending” scenes in Kim’s film recalls that of Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944), another thriller in which a married man’s momentary indiscretion opens a trap door to a nightmarish free fall that ends with a merciful awakening just at the moment of striking rock bottom—and the implicit threat that the whole process could begin again. Complementing its cyclical structure, The Housemaid is filled with images of confinement and numbing repetition. The film’s opening credits are superimposed over a close-up of the hands of the Kim children—son Chang-soon (Ahn Sung-ki) and daughter Ae-soon (Lee Yoo-ri)—as they play a game of cat’s cradle, forming and re-forming elaborate figures with a bit of string, ominously suggesting a tangled web being woven by the Fates. From here, Kim cross-fades to our first views of the textile mill floor, where young women are dwarfed by the thread-winding and spinning mechanisms that churn away around them.
The Housemaid (1960)
This following of protocol will be the loose thread that eventually unravels the skein of the Kims’ tranquil family life, for the world of the film is one where no bad deed—however socially encouraged that bad deed may be—goes unpunished.
To shoot a factory in such a way as to suggest dehumanizing routine is no major accomplishment, but The Housemaid goes further, connecting the mill’s clatter to the Kim family home, where most of the film’s action takes place. No quiet domestic respite, it is itself a scene of monotonous labor, filled at night with the buzz of Mrs. Kim’s sewing machine—she has been taking in tailoring jobs for years and is starting to feel the toll of the time she’s spent guiding seams, frequently dozing off at the table—or the repetition of piano scales. The latter are being practiced by Kyung-hee (Um Aing-ran), a factory girl—and bosom friend of Seon-young—whom Mr. Kim has agreed to give private lessons to in the evenings. By way of this moonlighting, the family are able to afford little creature comforts, like the pet squirrel that Mr. Kim brings home to Ae-soon—but even this apparent “extravagance” is intended to convey a lesson in diligence and hard work. Her father instructs Ae-soon, who walks with crutches because of an unspecified childhood illness, to imitate the squirrel tirelessly running on the wheel in his cage and to exercise her weakened limbs, presumably so that she can grow up to fully participate in the various wearisome, repetitious activities of which responsible adult life appears to be composed.
With a few well-placed details, The Housemaid precisely locates the Kims’ position on the socioeconomic ladder: after years of clinging to the lower rungs of the middle class they have, by dint of constant enterprise, recently arrived at measure of upward mobility. As the film opens they are close to completing the construction of a two-story home expansion in their backyard that includes a space for Mr. Kim to conduct his lessons in privacy. With its completion, the family are soon in the market for a live-in maid to help the exhausted Mrs. Kim take care of their enlarged living space. That Mrs. Kim originates from a slightly higher caste than her husband is inferred by a single line, spoken when he suggests they make a visit to her mother back on the family farm: “She won’t snub us now.”
Mrs. Kim has enough of the old gentility left in her that she goes faint at the sight of one of the rats infesting her kitchen; when Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim), the new maid the family takes on, finds one of the creatures lurking in the cupboard, she matter-of-factly grabs it by the tail and dispatches it with the air of someone well accustomed to life among vermin. Myung-sook, pretty in a pinched way and invested with an air of permanent wariness, is recruited from out of the factory dorms by Kyung-hee, whose motives for making herself indispensable to the Kim household remain shrouded in mystery through the film’s first act—is she after revenge for the tragic, heartbroken Seon-young, or a chance to get Mr. Kim all to herself?
A little of both, as it transpires, but this early focus on Kyung-hee amounts to a piece of narrative misdirection distracting from the real viper building a nest in the heart of the household: Myung-sook. After seducing Mr. Kim while his family is away, she begins to use the Kims’ fear of public disgrace to gradually turn their house into her personal fiefdom, as she does so, transforming former domestic harmony into harrowing discord—a disintegration that finds a very literal analog in Han Sang-gi’s increasingly clangorous, off-key score.
The Housemaid (1960)
Myung-sook might be categorized as a femme fatale, but she’s far from the only compromised character in the world of The Housemaid. If we are made to understand the social forces at work to encourage Mr. Kim’s rectitude in reporting Seon-young’s letter to her superiors, the craven conformity of this action doesn’t do much to establish him as a strong protagonist possessed of his own moral compass, and when the going starts to get rough, he shows an unseemly proclivity for taking out his anger on social inferiors—not just Myung-sook, but also the cab driver he berates during a drunken, guilt-gnawed bender. (Later, when Myung-sook threatens the couple’s new baby, his boozy bravery is nowhere to be found, leaving Mrs. Kim to intervene and save the child.) Faced with Myung-sook’s threat of kicking up a scandal, Mrs. Kim lets her middle-class fear of ignominy overcome her instinct for self-preservation, with ultimately tragic results for the family she’s ostensibly trying to protect. And then there’s five-year-old Chang-soon, the family’s pampered first-born boy, who makes himself consistently obnoxious to both Myung-sook, who he treats like chattel, and his own sister, who he mocks for her disability whenever his parents’ backs are turned. (With Seon-young, the Kims’ daughter is the nearest to a true innocent in the film, and is ill-used by everyone in it, with even her loving parents accustomed to addressing her as something broken in need of repair.)
As Myung-sook slowly asserts her will on the Kim household, the sly, shy, suspicious peasant busybody transforms into a malicious, vengeful madwoman, her increasingly febrile face in close-ups recalling that of Kathleen Byron’s harried, hysterical Sister Ruth in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947). But much as The Housemaid establishes a broader social framework which allows us to understand the Kim family’s weaknesses, it also finds room for nuance in the portrayal of Myung-sook, who’s never reduced to a mere demonic instrument of inexplicable evil—her have-not resentment is all too human and comprehensible, and Lee achieves genuine pathos in her committed portrayal of a woman driven into mania when her futile campaign to win love through brute force suffers one setback after another, until finally even her scorched earth plan to possess the head of the Kim family in death must fail.
The Housemaid has been referred to as Kim’s first “mature” feature, a judgement that’s hard to definitively confirm or deny, given that only one of the seven melodramas that he turned out in the ’50s, Yangsan Province (1955), survives even partially intact today. Born in Seoul in 1922 and raised in Pyongyang from the age of eight, Kim would dabble in the arts throughout his youth, most extensively in the theater, while simultaneously pursuing vocational training in dentistry from Seoul National University. While the Korean War effectively paralyzed domestic film production, it also provided Kim his entry into cinema, producing documentary shorts for the United States Information Service.
Box of Death, Kim’s first commercial feature, was released in 1955, widely considered the inaugural year of a “Golden Age” for the South Korean film industry that was marked by a resurgence in local productions, encouraged by the policies of president Syngman Rhee and a concurrent spike in cinemagoing. The liberties that Rhee permitted filmmakers—namely, tax exemption—were accompanied by equally strict constraints by censors deciding on permissible subject matter, and so 1960, the year of Rhee’s resignation following the civilian mass protests of the April Revolution, would be something of an annus mirabilis for South Korean cinema, producing not only The Housemaid but Yu Hyun-mok’s similarly venerated Aimless Bullet. South Korea’s pause between strongarm military dictatorships didn’t last long—a 1961 military coup led by Park Chung-hee would see Park established as president a year later—but for a time it still remained possible to produce serious films questioning established authority and social norms, including Lee Man-hui’s bracingly squalid 1964 thriller Black Hair and Kim’s 1963 Goryeo Dynasty-set period piece Goryeojang, which concerns a poor village farmer’s decision to break with a tradition of senicide that demands he carry his 70-year-old mother off to the mountains to die alone.
The Housemaid (1960)
A popular success from the moment of its November 2nd premiere at Seoul’s Myeongbo Theater, The Housemaid presumably garnered some morbid attention via its connection to an actual murder case in Gimcheon—referenced in the opening scene—but headline-chasing topicality can’t account for the film’s longevity: Kim is a masterful and original stylist, known in his day for his elaborately detailed storyboarding of every scene. His influences are difficult to trace from English-language sources, but Kim had spent time in Japan during the war, and presumably would have been up on contemporary Japanese cinema—Goryeojang shares its basic plot materials with Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 The Ballad of Narayama, later the inspiration for Shōhei Imamura’s 1983 film of the same name. (In Japan he’d had a memorable encounter with Lang’s 1931 M, so The Housemaid’s echo of Woman in the Window may not be coincidental.) An ominous shot of a “poisoned” glass of water being carried up a staircase in The Housemaid also suggests Kim’s possible acquaintance with Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), and though I don’t know if Kim had a chance to study the films of Nicholas Ray, he shares with Ray an acute attention to the tense dynamic between public/downstairs and private/upstairs spaces, as well as a predilection for turning the transitory space of the stairway into the scene of conflict and calamity. (See for example Myung-sook’s death scene, clinging to the leg of the lover who has spurned her as he struggles to make his way to his wife, her head ricocheting off each step as he stumbles down them.)
Kim’s reputation generally and the reputation of The Housemaid specifically have grown steadily through the decades. His breakthrough has long been a known quantity in South Korea, where it routinely places atop lists of the finest films ever produced in the country, and it gained new attention from Western critics following a 1997 retrospective of Kim’s films at the 2nd Busan International Film Festival, followed by another retro in Berlin the following year, which started days after Kim’s death in a house fire at age 79. The filmmakers who’ve been instrumental in South Korean cinema’s transformation into an export-friendly international brand—Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-ho, Im Sang-soo—are unanimous today in their praise of Kim, with The Housemaid in particular continuing to exercise an outsized influence: a remake, directed by Im, played Cannes in 2010, while Bong has cited Kim’s film as a key inspiration for his 2019 Parasite.
Though there’s no denying that the acclaimed New Korean Cinema of the 21st century represents a level of technical polish found nowhere in Kim’s work, he remains unmatched in his ability to extract a maximum of emotional effect with a minimum of means. In a suffocatingly claustrophobic film like The Housemaid, he thickens the acrid atmosphere by letting several scenes in the Kim house linger to uncomfortable length, making his film’s handful of short cutaways—dying rats convulsing next to a plate of poisoned rice, a train rushing through the countryside toward Seon-young’s pitiful funereal—all the more jarring.
Kim’s reputation generally and the reputation of The Housemaid specifically have grown steadily through the decades. His breakthrough has long been a known quantity in South Korea, where it routinely places atop lists of the finest films ever produced in the country.
Neither of the abovementioned, glossy latter-day homages by Kim’s latter-day acolytes can match the feverish, delirious qualities of the various reconfigurations of The Housemaid that appear throughout Kim’s own body of work. The ménage à trois scenario of the 1960 film recurs in two more-or-less direct remakes by Kim—Woman of Fire (1971) and Woman of Fire ’82 (1982)—as well as the likes of his 1969 Lady Hong, in which the third-party interloper is a ghost, and 1972 Insect Woman, in which the rats of The Housemaid reappear as a veritable rodent army. (At the time of Kim’s death he was working on the scenario for yet another love triangle film, to be called Evil Woman.)
Insect Woman happens to share its English-language title with a 1963 film by Imamura, and there is more than this and their The Ballad of Narayama connection to invite comparison between Kim and his Japanese contemporary—both were fascinated by the wily, rebellious spirit of the underclasses of their respective home countries and by how primal, libidinal forces posed a constant threat to social order; neither were inclined to sentimentalize or sugar-coat depictions of the ugly forms that rebellion against hypocritical, stifling middle-class conformity could take.
Kim himself would establish himself as an irascible, irreconcilable force in South Korean cinema. When the Golden Age ended in 1973 with Park’s government intervening to encourage the production of propagandistic “policy films,” he would continue to work in the margins of the industry as an independent producer-director, continuing his expeditions into taboo and transgression in luridly expressionistic works like Iodo (1977) and Killer Butterfly (1978), both prime instances of his radical experimentation with color photography, and both still waiting to find the level of worldwide appreciation that The Housemaid has begun to enjoy.
In the recollections of Kim by contemporaries available to the English reader, one finds a mingling of respect and alarm—the latter at how far he went in his monomaniacal pursuit of making exactly the films he wanted to make, how far he went in the films themselves, and even at his personal appearance. “A monster” is how screenwriter and director Yoo Ji-hoeng describes Kim: “A big and tall six-foot frame, bushy hair that looks as if it’s not washed, rough skin that’s neither dark nor fair, and his glaring crawfish-like eyes, which are always on guard and anxious-looking when viewing a person or thing.” Not exactly flattering, this account, but eloquent of the monstré sacre place that Kim holds in the history of South Korean cinema: an ogre, perhaps, but undeniably a giant.
Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born, Brooklyn-based writer focused on moving image-based art; his writing has appeared in Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Artforum, Frieze, Reverse Shot, The Guardian, 4Columns, The Baffler, Rhizome, Harper’s, and the Village Voice. He is the editor of Bombast magazine, editor-at-large of Metrograph Journal, and maintains a Substack, Employee Picks. Publications include monographs on Mondo movies (True/False) and the films of Ruth Beckermann (Austrian Film Museum), a book on Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Fireflies Press), and a forthcoming critical biography of Jean Eustache (The Film Desk).
The Housemaid (1960)