Come for the housemaids gone wild, stay for the trenchant sociological commentary. In a double bill spanning Korean history — on-screen and off — this year's fest features the bizarre 1960 classic The Housemaid, and its ripely lurid 2010 reinterpretation by Im Sang-soo. Both tales feature a husband who dallies with a servant, but the stakes, psychological and otherwise, prove quite different: Im puts the young woman at the mercy of an entitled scion in a mansion, while in Kim Ki-Young's version, it's a breadwinning piano teacher who succumbs and sees his humble household gripped by Bunuelian psychosexual chaos.
But for all the juicy details, Im's changes aren't merely cosmetic: They reflect the fraught modern identity of a country that endured Japanese imperialist rule and the Korean War.
"At the time of the original film, the issue was the start of the middle class that didn't exist before," a spirited Im said in a recent interview in New York, where five years ago his film The President's Last Bang, with its flashy account of the 1979 assassination of South Korea's leader, was a highlight of the New York Film Festival. "What's more relevant today, in this day and age, is the superrich that control wide aspects of society and politics."
It's a power distinction palpable in the sets — and setups — for the two films. The 1960 version's house is almost its own character, a narrow two-story house with voyeur-friendly screen doors and tight rooms that foster insecurity; the maid is a little animalistic agent of chaos. In Im's take, the Adonis-like husband (Lee Jung-jae) and his pampered pregnant wife stretch out in a luxuriously appointed "European-style" house that bespeaks free prerogative. After frenzied sex with the husband, their domestic, played by Secret Sunshine's Jeon Do-youn, must face the ruthless measures taken by the lady of the house and her mother.
A key character in Im's version is the tough senior servant, a pragmatic cynic who seems to have resigned herself to the power of her unscrupulous employers. Yun Yeo-jong, the actress who plays her, is another thread connecting the two movies.
"She was in her 20s when Kim Ki-Young, the original director, discovered her and worked with her exclusively for about five films," said Im, who here works with Yun for the fourth time.
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Her character and Jeon's together could be taken as commentary on the national character. "Korean people as a society have endured so many bad things in history that they endure desperate and low measures to establish some semblance of stability, some kind of rest," Im said. "But even though they achieve stability, they still have this mentality of living as a housemaid."
For his part, the director doesn't consider his interpretation a remake. In fact, he chuckled when asked his feelings on Kim's work.
"Unfortunately enough, I wasn't that great of a fan. I don't deny his greatness," said Im, whose father was a film critic who locked horns with Kim. "My contemporaries Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho have much more respect for him than I do. Interestingly, 50 years later, it's not they who remade the film, it's me!"
The Housemaid (1960) and The Housemaid (2010) screen Sunday, November 7, at the Chinese Theatre.