It turns out there are Korean films made before 1985. And this one is magnificent.
I guess you could say that the concept of the film is similar to the remake I just reviewed. This time we have a more traditional family unit – The Father is a musician (who we see giving music lessons in a paper mill), with his pregnant wife and two young children. At the beginning of the film we see two women that work at the Mill have a crush on the Father, and after one writes a letter professing her love for him, his does the “right” thing and informs the authorities. This leads to a chain of events that leads to the suicide of one of the women, and the other takes the opportunity to introduce another girl from the factory to become the Families live-in Housemaid. A one night stand happens, a pregnancy ensues, and the film continues a decent into a world of infanticide, abortion, suicide and madness.
Unlike the remake, this film is more concerned with the growth of the middle class in 1960’s Korea. These people are not super-rich, but they are starting to want things like bigger houses and televisions. The Housemaid herself is obviously a more common sort, and is almost animalistic – watch the way she eyes cigarettes. For me it worked well – this is a film that works on many levels – the societal aspect is not rammed down your throat which I felt the remake did.
The central performance of the film is of course the titular Housemaid – and Lee Eun-shim delivers a performance equal to that of Jeon Do-yeon in the 2010 remodelling. In fact in some ways it is better – her character will by turns elicit pity, empathy, fear, just about all the emotions. Sadly for her, she was never able to get another cinematic role, such was the effect her performance had on the audience.
The film was lost for many years, and there is a restoration available (and as a treat you can see it free and legal here), which for the most part is frankly stunning quality. There are a couple of segments that have not been able to be restored as well, but it does not really affect the enjoyment.
I was surprised how hardcore the events of the film were – especially for 1960 – I can’t think of a British or American film that dealt with some of this subject matter so directly. Yes, you see the classic Korean foible of Melodrama in a few scenes, but on the whole, this film is fresh and vibrant. Even the cop-out ending, which I would normally feel critical of, seems to be the right way for the film end – making it an almost Chaucerian morality tale.
In fact, it really opened my eyes – for some reason I expected 1960’s Korea to be a little more behind the Western World – but you seriously would not be able to tell much of a difference between 1960’s Korea, America or England. So a win in the education department too. And now, Things Fall Apart will have to hunt down some more of director Kim Ki-young’s work.
Highest of recommendations.