AFI Fest: 'Housemaid' and 'Bedeviled' reinforce image of Korean films as brutal and beautiful
If there is any one thing that international cinema has taught me, it is this: do not piss off a Korean.
Obviously, the new Korean cinema has contributed many things to film, and there's certainly not just one type of movie that they make, but there's no arguing that the revenge film seems to have become a specialty for the industry. One of the best films I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival this year was "I Saw The Devil," a meticulously built story of one secret agent determined to pay back a serial killer for what he did to the agent's fiancee. It's a brutal ride, but there's an emotional charge that comes from watching someone right a wrong on film. At their most primal, these are movies that empower the viewer because we watch characters act out the complex emotions that many of us are forced to swallow in our daily lives.
"The Housemaid" is a remake of a '60s film, and I'm glad I haven't seen the original because it meant that the new one played as a fresh experience for me. Both Toronto and Fantastic Fest booked the film so that the original and the remake played as double-headers, but I never managed to work it into my schedule at either fest as a back-to-back. I would imagine that's a brutal experience to sit through, because just one version of the story nearly exhausted me. I didn't expect this from the director of "The President's Last Bang," either. And while I know many of you might immediately key in on the word "brutal" and treat that as a reason to avoid the film, I think there's enormous merit in a film that can cast a cold light on the darker aspects of how we behave with one another.
Both "The Housemaid" and "Bedevilled" paint a picture of class and gender inequalities that is horrifying, and the reason they work is because they force the viewer to invest in the indignities that are heaped on their protagonists. In "The Housemaid," Lee Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) is a slightly dumb woman, newly divorced, who has to find a job. She's miserable living in a single small bedroom with her best friend and working in an even smaller kitchen, so when she's offered a job as a nanny in a very wealthy home, she is absolutely thrilled. The husband, Mr. Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae) is a self-entitled piece of garbage, and from the moment Lee Eun-yi shows up in his house, he's a rutting moron, looking to find a way to get some alone time with the girl. It's not even a rational response… he makes no real attempt to conceal his time with her, even when everyone else is in the house. There is an older housemaid (Yun Yeo-Jong) who serves as a guide for the younger woman, but she can see what's happening as soon as it begins, and there are actually two different Mrs. Hoons. One is Mr. Hoon's mother (Park Ji-Young) and the other is his wife (Seo Woo), and once they learn for sure what's happening, they begin to visit punishments on Lee Eun-yi, accelerating as they go, until everyone in the house reaches a breaking point that is positively operatic. "The Housemaid" felt like a punch to the solar plexus, a brutally sad movie. It's small-scale, and it really is all fuse with just one eruption of breathtaking fury. But it felt like it was more brutal than 90% of all horror films I see because "The Housemaid" means it. There's no out. There's no release. No matter what happens, there's no good ending possible, and that feeling, especially once you invest in a character, is emotionally harrowing.
"Bedevilled" is a very different experience, and although it won the Audience Award at Fantastic Fest, I'm not sure I felt like it worked as a whole. The film by Jang Cheol-so is very well-made on a technical level, and there's some very strong performance work in the film. The film opens with Hae-won (Ji Sung-won) miserable in her daily life in Korea. She works in a bank in the loan department, and there's a few opening scenes where I thought I was about to see a Korean riff on "Drag Me To Hell," but the opening scenes are really all just to set up the way Hae-won lives, the anger she has no way of venting, the way she works to keep herself walled off. She gets constant letters from a girl she grew up with, Bak-run (Seo Yeong-hee), asking her to visit the place they lived, Moo-do Island, but Hae-won throws the letters away unread at this point. It's only after pressure finally causes Hae-won to snap and she's told to go on vacation that she finally heads to Moo-do Island.
Biiiiiig mistake. The life that Bak-run's been living while Hae-won was in the city is, quite simply, hell, and she believes when she sees her old friend that things are about to change for her. Instead, Hae-won's arrival seems to stir up long-simmering sentiment, and the quiet tiny island turns into a nightmare, with the least likely figure serving as the monster at the heart of things. Bak-run's anger and her fear and her sexual humiliation and her love of Hae-won and her idolization of her for getting out… it all gets tangled up together, and the result is both awful to watch and awful to consider. The last third of the film is played almost like a slasher film, and Bak-run becomes a figure of fear, but it seems like the big miscalculation in the film. It lets her godawful husband off the hook in a way, and it lets the other figures on the island who have made her life so awful off the hook, because your sympathy for Bak-run evaporates. The film works so hard to make her a figure of broken empathy for the first two-thirds that I felt let down by the way things wrap up. It's still expertly made, and I would imagine in an crowded theater, "Bedevilled" gives a cathartic release that would be magnified by the group dynamic, but it seems to me to be uneven and less focused than it could be. It's too great a manipulation, and because it's done with such a lack of finesse, I ended up resisting it. I think director Jang Cheoi-Soo is very skilled, and I look forward to whatever's next, but I found myself impatient for "Bedevilled" to end rather than eager for the revenge to unfold.
Both films screened as part of the AFI Fest in Hollywood.