... aka: Hanyo - Das Hausmädchen (Hanyo: The Housemaid)
... aka: Housemaid, The
... aka: La criada (The Maid)
... aka: La servante (The Servant)
At an all-girl's "school" where students from poor households work in a factory, one of the girls falls in love with her married music teacher Dong-sik Kim (Jin Kyu Kim). Seon-young Kwak (Seon-ae Ko) and her roommate / best friend Kyung-hee Cho (Aeng-ran Eom) sneak him a love letter by hiding it in his piano. Instead of reciprocating the crush, he reports it to the headmistress. Seon-young, who wrote the letter, is given three days suspension. Humiliated, she quits and takes a train back home. Despite what happened to her friend, Kyung-hee starts taking piano lessons from Dong-sik at his home, where she becomes acquainted with his hard-working wife (Jeung-nyeo Ju), his frail daughter Ae-soon (Yoo-ri Lee) and his trouble-making son Chang-soon (Sung-Ki Ahn). The entire family starts to grow quite fond of Kyung-hee. In Dong-sik's case, perhaps he's growing a little too fond as those piano lessons require lots of hand touching and close, over-the-shoulder observance. Perhaps Kyung-hee is feeling the same way. Perhaps all the more so.
In the Kim household, the parents have always worked hard and have now saved up enough money to buy their very first home so they can get out of their cramped apartment. Their high aspirations have led the pregnant Mrs. Kim to working a little too hard. She has two jobs, including one that requires her to spend every evening at the sewing machine doing tailoring. Add in the cooking, cleaning, raising a sensitive, special needs girl who uses arm braces to get around and a mischievous son who teases his sibling as a "cripple" and trying to get their fixer-upper new house habitable have all taken their toll. Understandably fatigued, she starts suffering from dizzy spells. After fainting in the kitchen from exhaustion, Dong-sik decides it's time to hire live-in housemaid.
Dong-sik assigns Kyung-hee the task of finding someone willing to quit the factory and come work for them and she's got the perfect girl for the job: Myung-sook (Eun-shim Lee), her newly-assigned roommate after Seon-young got expelled. Kyung-hee doesn't take too kindly to Myung-sook smoking in their room and Myung-sook doesn't want to be there anyway so it works out perfectly. Or at least it starts out that way.
Seon-young commits suicide and her mother blames Dong-sik for it. But Kyung-hee has a little secret of her own: The letter was really from her and she's the one in love with Dong-sik. She finally confesses but he refuses to reciprocate, leading her to threaten to kill herself and implicate him in her rape in her suicide letter if he doesn't. The teacher still refuses to cave in, things get violent and he sends her on her way. Kyung-hee then starts spreading lies about him at school. With him being blamed for one girl's suicide and having his professional reputation destroyed by another girl, what else could possibly go wrong? Well, let's check in with the new housemaid, shall we?
The mentally-unstable Myung-sook uses a balcony to spy into Dong-sik's piano room, where she hears everything that went on between her boss and the scorned student. She uses that information to get the upper hand on Dong-sik, even managing to successfully seduce him. With Myung-sook clinging to him at every opportunity, threatening him and banging on piano keys at all hours of the night when he ignores her, Dong-sik has no other choice but to come clean with his wife. She's disgusted with him but has no interest in throwing everything they've worked so hard for away because of one indiscretion. After a "heart-to-heart" with Myung-sook, Mrs. Kim convinces her to throw herself down the stairs to abort the baby. Afterward, Myung-sook stays in an upstairs bedroom, refuses to leave and becomes even more unhinged.
With plenty of blackmail material that would lead to the financial ruin of the Kim's at her disposal, Myung-sook refuses to leave and starts exerting her power over the family. She makes Mrs. Kim serve her and cater to her every whim right up until she gives birth to her baby, and expects the same immediately after. And then she picks up the newborn baby and threatens to throw it across the room! She eventually takes it one step further by putting rat poison in their son's water so he panics, falls down the stairs and dies. The missing bottle of rat poison is then used to terrorize everyone and keep them on edge. Her insane jealousy leads her to stab Kyung-hee when she shows up for her piano lesson. To further degrade the wife, she forces Dong-sik to sleep in her bedroom (and have sex with her), eventually demanding Mrs. Kim live under the same roof yet cut off all contact with her husband. And, ultimately, when things seem hopeless for her, she stages a Romeo & Juliet-style suicide pact!
Suspenseful, unpleasant, extremely tense, very well-made, shot and acted and genuinely surprising in spots, this is essentially a married man / male midlife crisis nightmare movie. The female students, all sweet and alluring at first, represent the always-looming temptation that threatens to derail men trying their best to do right by their wives and children while, well, dealing with being men. Dong-sik rejects the girls at first, yet they keep coming back for more, just as the lure to stray from marriage vows / fidelity and stressful familial responsibilities never quite fully goes away. It doesn't even matter that Mrs. Kim is basically super-wife, works her ass off, seldom complains and somehow manages to keep a positive attitude. Even she, about as dedicated and loyal a spouse as one could hope for, is powerless to keep the wolves at bay, especially when the temptation is so strong it's literally clinging to her husband's leg and refusing to let go!
Since this is so relentlessly downbeat and grim, the makers decided to add a jokey little postscript at the end to lighten the mood a bit, which is akin to the goofy end credits of The Bad Seed (1956) where the cast is announced and murderous little Rhoda gets spanked so the audience is reminded it's only a movie. You can just be like me and pretend you never saw it or chalk it up to a necessary evil to get away with lots of other ballsy stuff way back in 1960.
With the permission of the late director's son, this was restored and digitally remastered in 2008 by the Korean Film Archive and Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Organization. Some missing reels, once thought lost, were discovered later on and re-edited back in. These are more damaged than the rest of the film, which looks pretty pristine otherwise. Most outside of Korea, where this was a big hit, didn't get to see it until Criterion finally released it on DVD and Blu-ray in 2013 (there was no prior home video release here in America). Director Sang-soo Im remade this under the same title in 2010.
The director has made a number of other genre films I'm now stoked to see, including Minyeo Hong Nang-ja (1969; "Lady Hong"), Hwanyeo (1970; "Woman of Fire"), Chungyo (1972; "The Insect Woman"), Iodo (1977; "Io Island"), Salinnabileul ggotneun yeoja (1978; "Woman with Butterfly Tattoo) and Hwanyeo '82 (1982; "Woman of Fire '82"). The "Woman of Fire" films are supposedly partial rehashes of this one.