Script drags down an intriguing plot

The Housemaid, a Korean drama-thriller and a remake of Kim Ki-young’s 1960’s film of the same name, is a rather heavy-handed critique of South Korea’s rich that, unsurprisingly, doesn’t live up to the original. The film, written and directed by the occasionally controversial Im Sang-soo, was recently screened in USC’s Ray Stark Family Theatre and will officially open today at CGV Cinemas in Koreatown.

Getting goosebumps · The Housemaid tries to create suspense, but at times the effects and characters comes across as too cheesy. The film employs classic suspense techniques that are ultimately ineffective. - Photo courtesy of IFC films

The film centers around impoverished dishwasher Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn). She is offered the opportunity of a lifetime by seasoned housekeeper Byung-sik (Yun Yeo-jong) and begins work  as a housemaid for the obscenely rich Goh family. The Goh family’s upper-class hobbies include swilling expensive French wine and listening to bombastic classical music, while looking as bored as humanly possible. The family consists of Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), his very pregnant wife Haera (Seo Woo) and their young, emotionally distant daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyun).

It doesn’t take Hoon long to make a late night visit to Eun-yi’s bed, and the housemaid soon finds herself pregnant. Of course, this triggers the wrath of Haera and her mother Mi-hee (Park Ji-young), who will stop at nothing until the baby is killed, driving Eun-yi to vengeful insanity.

Although the actors are believable (aside from Ahn Seo-hyun, who speaks as though she’s reading her lines from a card) the script does not take advantage of the characters’ distinct personalities and makes their relationships unconvincing. Eun-yi is childlike and naïve, but when Hoon begins to sexually harass her, she jumps headfirst into the affair with an adult eagerness that contradicts her nature.

Mi-hee is similarly perplexing. Icy, jaded, conniving, selfish and malicious, she is barely more than a standard villain. Watching her is particularly frustrating because it’s clear how much could have been done with her character if the story had allowed her to grow realistically.

Haera and Byung-sik are well-rounded, individual characters and manage to keep the story from falling apart. Both are incredibly sympathetic, despite their flaws.

Haera, portrayed excellently by Seo Woo, is ambiguously villainous but completely understandable. The film is also strengthened by Byung-sik, who commands the audience’s attention. She is stoic, conflicted and duplicitous in her intentions, but also provides most of the comedic moments in the film.

In addition to a few well-played characters, the film also manages to create a dramatic atmosphere and setting. The mansion interiors are luxurious and sterile, reflecting the glaciated family and the unsympathetic environment that Eun-yi has stepped into.

Sang Soo also plays with angles and juxtaposition of lighting. Though both come off as hammy when a character’s face is half-illuminated and half-dark, the lighting enhances the film as a markedly visual experience.

Unfortunately, that film includes many sex scenes between Eun-yi and Hoon that might make uncomfortable viewers wonder if Sang Soo originally intended The Housemaid as a skin flick. The scenes are graphic, gratuitous and full of vulgar dialogue so embarrassing that they render themselves pathetically corny.

In addition, the extreme music and up-close facial shots make what little tension there is feel fabricated. The entire film resembles a schmaltzy soap opera as opposed to the thriller it was clearly intended to be.

The Housemaid is an odd movie to pin down. Full of numerous distracting faults like insufficient character development and contrived dialogue, it banks on the anticipation of the audience, but never pays off.  Truly scary, satisfying scenes are missing.

Indeed, this unfulfilled potential is frustrating, even if there’s enough spark to keep the film mildly interesting. The Housemaid should have been great, but is instead a messy, mediocre film that desperately needs to be cleaned up.