Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Hwanyeo (1971)

... aka: 화녀
... aka: 火女
... aka: Fire Woman
... aka: Hi on'na
... aka: Hwa-nyeo
... aka: La fille de satan (Satan's Daughter)
... aka: Woman of Fire

Directed by:
Kim Ki-yeong (Ki-young Kim)

The camera prowls around a bloody crime scene where a home owner and a housekeeper have both been murdered. Police have an underage young man, who has taken credit for the slayings, and two female witnesses in custody. At a back-and-forth between a reporter and the lead detective (Moo-ryong Choi), the former blames the increase in teenage crime to war, while the latter is quick to blame the media themselves for their sensationalism and negativity. When the cop returns to his office, the burglar confesses yet again and it's taken into record, he can barely get a word out of the older female witness and the younger female, who claims to work in a bar and came from a small village to work in the big city so she can send money back home, gets chastised for her "lewd" line of work. We then go into flashback mode to reveal just what happened.

After suffering rape at the hands of a pair of blacksmiths (one of whom ends up being smashed in the face with a rock), country girls Kyung-hui and Myeong-ja (Yuh-Jung Youn) head to Seoul to start a new life. Kyung-hui dreams of becoming a singer and hopes for a job where she can make money off of men. Myeong-ja decides she'd like to work as a housekeeper for a rich family because she thinks she'd be able to learn a lot observing how the wealthy live. The girls are quickly separated at an employment agency where Kyung-hui jumps at the chance to be a dancer / waitress at a men's club. Myeong-ja has to settle for a job as a housekeeper for Jeong-suk (Gye-hyeon Jeon), who's thrifty, blue collar, hard-working and not quite the obscenely wealthy boss she was hoping to work for. Instead, Jeong-suk mostly operates a large chicken farm while her husband Dong-sik (Namkoong Won) mostly writes songs and plays piano for wannabe singers at an all-girl's school. In lieu of payment, Myeong-ja requests only room, board and for Jeong-suk's assistance in helping her find a husband.

Clumsy, sheepish and more than a little bit odd, Myeong-ja starts her position dropping fish and dishes, and shows a hidden dark side by catching a rat with her bare hands and then stomping on it. Jeong-suk and Dong-sik's two bratty children write her off as a dumb "country bumpkin," fight all of the time and tell their hard-working and always-stressed mother that owning a chicken farm is "embarrassing." However, she's sunk all of her money into building their impressive home and, as a result, has to work extra hard to keep up appearances. Jeong-suk is also paranoid her husband is going to cheat with one of his "feisty" female students. When she has to go out of town, she instructs Myeong-ja to do anything in her power to stop a potential affair... even if that means killing someone!

With the wife away, Dong-sik gets drunk on homemade rice wine just as one of his students, Hye-ok (Yeong-a Oh), shows up to attempt to seduce him. Feeling unfulfilled in life, he decides to take the bait but the housemaid manages to throw Hye-ok out of the home, leading Dong-sik to rape her instead. The attack brings back instant memories of the rape she suffered back in her village. Having now snapped, Myeong-ja finds herself hopelessly in love with Dong-sik. The two squeeze in one more night of sex, this time consensual, before the wife and kids return home from their trip. However, their presence only seems to strengthen Myeong-ja's obsession with her married employer. She keeps slipping him notes, asks if he'll continue to have sex with her from time to time and confesses she's pregnant with his child. Dong-sik is forced to come clean to his wife. She takes Myeong-ja to have an abortion, which is so traumatic for her that she spends countless months locked away in her bedroom. In the interim, Jeong-suk has a baby of her own.

Having now had plenty of time to go completely insane, Myeong-ja decides she's going to take over the families life, starting by killing their new baby by throwing it down the stairs! Because if word gets out about the affair and abortion they'll be ruined, the couple send their children away to live with their grandparents and are then forced to cater to Myeong-ja's every whim, starting with her taking possession of Dong-sik with hopes that he'll impregnate her. After a man from her employment agency attempts to blackmail her with details about her past, Myeong-ja kills him by shattering a vase over his head, which only further implicates the entire family in criminal activity when she pins the crime on Dong-sik (who had passed out the night of the murder) and then the wife claims to have disposed of the body in the chicken meat grinder to cover for him.

This is Kim's "variation" on his 1960 hit THE HOUSEMAID. While it sticks fairly closely to the original's central plot and many of its details, there are some major differences here. For starters, this one's in color and makes sure we damn well know it with lots of vibrant lighting choices. Second, to bring it up to date with the art house-crazed 70s, the director has spliced in a number of still photo / artwork collages during some of the more tense moments. Third, the psycho is given more of a psychological profile / backstory and thus more motivation. Fourth, the entire film is told via flashback. Finally, several new subplots have been added, including the police investigation of the blackmailer's murder and a few scenes keeping us up to date with Myeong-ja's friend, who has been forced into prostitution. While some of these alterations aren't really for the better, this is still a tense, harrowing, visually arresting and well-acted psycho-horror / drama.

Though this went unreleased in most countries, it was one of the most acclaimed films of its year in South Korea and won all kinds of film awards there upon release. At the Blue Dragon Film Awards, considered the most prestigious film award given out in the country, it won for Best Director, Best Leading Actress (Youn), Best Supporting Actress (Jeon) and Best Art Direction (Seok-in Park). It also won several awards at the Daejong (Grand Bell) Film Awards and netted Youn yet another Best Actress trophy at the Sitges - Catalonian International Film Festival.

Kim even decided to film this tale a THIRD time a decade later with Hwanyeo '82 (Woman of Fire '82). And, in 2010, Hanyo / The Housemaid was remade yet again, this time by Sang-soo Im. That film was critically acclaimed as well and Youn, who'd transitioned over to playing the wife role in this later version, ended up winning most of her home countries Supporting Actress awards.

I'm not sure of any official U.S. release for this title though I do know there was a VHS release in Japan as well as a French release under the title La fille de satan.

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