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Marshall Fine

Marshall Fine

Posted: January 21, 2011 07:57 AM

Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid, opening in limited release, starts out looking like one thing, then shifts gears midway through to become something else - before turning into something even stranger.

It's a tense, erotic film that never tips its hand - and takes you places you can't expect. Yet it does it quietly, with startling restraint, even when the going gets surprisingly lurid.

Jeon Do-youn plays Eun-yi, a young woman in contemporary Korea who is out of work - and accepts a job as nanny to the young daughter of a wealthy businessman, Hoon (Lee Jung-jae). Her job is to take care of Hoon's small daughter so she'll be out of the hair of Hoon's pampered, pregnant wife, Hae-ra (Seo Woo).

Eun-yi works with (perhaps for, but it's unclear) the Hoon family housekeeper, Byung-sik (Yun Yeo-jong). But Byung-sik secretly reports all of the household's doings to the wife's vicious mother (Park Ji-young), who understands that her daughter's (and her) social standing depends on remaining in Hoon's good graces.

At first, Eun-yi seems to be simply a cog in the household machinery: tending to the small girl, doing Hae-ra's bidding, trying to stay in the housekeeper's good graces. Hoon himself seems like some imperious monarch, descending upon the house at the end of the day to have his needs catered to by the women of the house.

But eventually, Eun-yi catches his eye. She is young and seemingly inexperienced - but things aren't necessarily what they appear. Even then, an extramarital affair with the help is to be expected now and then; it's simply a matter of making sure that turnover keeps the head of the household from becoming too attached to any one employee. That's the housekeeper's - and the mother-in-law's - job: to protect the place of the wife above all else.

So while director Sang-soo explores sexuality and class differences, what he's really interested in are the sexual politics and the flow of power, the machinations of treachery within what seems to be a tight little family unit. The nanny, Eun-yi, is more resourceful than she appears, though she can't quite imagine the lengths to which Hoon's mother'in-law will go to force her out.

Seemingly placid but boiling with passions - from carnality to intense anger - The Housemaid is a hard-boiled little tale dressed up like something calmer and more measured. By the end, Im Sang-soo has pulled out stops that you didn't even know he had, in ways that will shock and satisfy.

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