Which, in English, is translated as The Housemaid, though it would perhaps have been more aptly titled Rats! I Got Me a New House. Not just because the catastrophe that swiftly unfurls in this film has its roots in the new house that a family moves into, but because the rat that is found there—and which makes the wife and mother faint and immediately order rat poison to be brought—ends up not just coming to a sorry end itself, but being indirectly the downfall of the family itself. Because that rat poison, lying hidden away first in a kitchen cupboard, then in a sideboard and finally inside a vase, is the constant reminder that the Kims’ home possesses a very potent murder weapon right there, on the premises.
But, to start at the beginning. Mr Kim (Kim Jin Kyu) is a pianist who teaches music at a local factory’s music club. All his pupils are women who work at the factory. He’s not just a handsome man, but also an elegant, possibly genteel sort (a pianist, after all), so it’s hardly surprising that, behind his back, most of his pupils lust after Mr Kim.
Only one, however, summons up the courage to actually express her sentiments. One evening, after the factory’s work is done and the music club assembles, Mr Kim sits down and opens the lid of his piano to find a love letter. It’s been written by one of the women, Kwak Seon Young (Ko Seon Ae). Mr Kim glances through it, tucks it into his jacket pocket, and immediately goes to the dormitory in charge to lodge a complaint.
The consequences are immediate. Miss Kwak is summoned, reprimanded, and suspended for three days. She’s shocked at the way Mr Kim has so publicly humiliated her, but goes without further protest.
Mr Kim’s behaviour is easily understood if one takes into account the opening scene of Hanyo, a cozy family evening, with Mr Kim and his wife (Ju Jeung Nyeo) sitting and chatting while their children, a girl named Ae Soon (Lee Yoo Ri) and her younger brother Chang Soon (famous and very prolific actor Ahn Sung Ki, in one of his earliest roles) play cat’s cradle. The two adults have just noticed a newspaper article about a man who had an affair with a housemaid. They’re discussing it, and Mr Kim expresses his disgust at the man’s behaviour.
From the way he treats his wife—with affection and consideration, telling her to go easy on her sewing (she takes in sewing in order to help with the household finances)—it’s obvious that the relationship between these two is a comfortable one, of mutual love and understanding. Right now, too, they are on the verge of shifting to a new home. The one they are living in right now is too small.
In fact, when Cho Kyung Hee (Eom Aeng Rang), one of the members of the music club, comes to ask Mr Kim for private piano lessons, he tells her to come later, to the new house. Right now, with the piano part of the drawing room, with his wife’s sewing machine and the children next to it, it’s just not possible to even think of piano lessons.
When they move into the new house, two other difficulties present themselves. First of all, as she’s putting away the unpacked crockery and cutlery and bottles and jars, Mrs Kim comes upon a rat and faints from sheer fright. When she comes to, she’s too weak to cope. Also, as days go by, it becomes apparent that Mrs Kim isn’t just the malingerer she at first seemed to be, but is pregnant. Her stomach hurts, she gets cramps in her legs, and this house, she soon realizes, is just too big for her to manage on her own. She needs help.
Very well, says Mr Kim, we’ll get a housemaid. And he turns to the one person he thinks may be able to help: Miss Cho, who (now that the Kims have moved into this new house) has started coming over for her piano lessons. Miss Cho promises to find a housemaid for the Kims, and soon after, arrives with the woman in tow. This is Myung Sook (Lee Eun Shim). She’s going to be living here, too, in a narrow little room of her own.
Mr and Mrs Kim show her around the place, and the new housemaid soon goes into the kitchen to acquaint herself with it. As she’s looking around, opening the cupboards and taking stock of what is where, she sees the rat. Unlike Mrs Kim’s panic-stricken reaction, Myung Sook’s reaction is chilling: in a coldly calculating way, she grabs the rat by the tail, flings it onto the ground and bashes it. The sound attracts the family, who gather around. It’s all very disgusting; Mr Kim tells Myung Sook about the rat poison and shows her where it’s kept. This is what she should use to get rid of the rats, he tells her.
So Myung Sook calmly gets up, gets out a plate from the cupboard, fills it with cooked rice, and liberally sprinkles it with rat poison. The already dead rat she picks up by its tail—not a sign of emotion on her face—and disposes of. The Kims look on, their expressions full of dread. Who is this woman they’ve taken on as housemaid?
They can’t afford, what with Mrs Kim’s difficult pregnancy and the fact that Ae Soon does not have full use of her legs, to turn away help. Myung Sook, after all, manages the household fairly competently. They settle back into their routines. Miss Cho comes for her piano lessons, Mrs Kim lies in bed, the children go about their play and their occasional spats.
And then, something happens. Miss Kwak, the woman who had been suspended from the factory for having written that love letter to Mr Kim, has gone off into the countryside and not returned to the factory. News now arrives that she’s died, and as factory representative, Mr Kim is sent to attend her funeral. He is the official representative, but most of her colleagues and friends from the music club are there too, and they all glare at Mr Kim with undisguised hatred: he is the one to blame for this.
They don’t spare him the next time he turns up at the music club. There is a nasty message addressed to the ‘murderer’ scrawled with chalk on the blackboard, but Mr Kim simply erases it. Miss Cho takes his part, though: Miss Kwak had been trying to poach on a married man, she says. She was in the wrong, not Mr Kim.
Over the next few days, the Kims go for a few days to visit Mr Kim’s in-laws. Mr Kim returns within a couple of days; the children and their mother stay on for longer. While they’re away, when Miss Cho comes for her piano lessons, she breaks down and confesses the truth to Mr Kim: that love letter had been written by her, Miss Cho, not Miss Kwak. Miss Cho is the one who has been in love with Mr Kim all this while. He is surprised, but makes it clear that he’s not interested.
Little does Mr Kim know that someone has been watching. Myung Sook, looking on, has been seeing the way Mr Kim’s hands rest gently on Miss Cho’s as he teaches her the piano. She watches, and that evening, when she and Mr Kim are alone at home, Myung Sook seduces him… and, a couple of months later, realizes she’s pregnant.
In one relatively light-hearted scene in Hanyo, Miss Cho admonishes Myung Sook about smoking. Don’t smoke, says Miss Cho. It’s a bad habit; you’ll end up going into a tailspin. What’s a tailspin? asks Myung Sook, and Miss Cho demonstrates, one hand going up into the air and whooshing down like a plane out of control.
And that is exactly what happens as a result of that one night of passion between Mr Kim and Myung Sook. From that moment, everything starts going haywire, the devastation spreading, destroying the entire family, gathering speed as it goes from being just a horribly embarrassing situation to something downright frightening.
What I liked about this film:
The atmosphere, and the way it changes. Director Kim Ki Young starts off with a picture that’s almost idyllic in its depiction of a traditional Asian family: mother, father, children. Doting parents, Mr Kim a devoted husband who cooks for his ill wife (there’s a particularly sweet scene where he dishes up four platefuls of curry and rice for them to eat, and all of them take their plates to Mrs Kim’s bed and sprawl across it, just so that she won’t have to eat alone). You’d think this was going to be a sweet, heart-warming little tale of an everyday family and their everyday problems.
…. Except that it takes on a distinctly uncomfortable feel with the arrival of Myung Sook, and after Myung Sook has her fling with Mr Kim, it goes spiraling out of control. The visuals, the acting (those close-ups of people’s faces, especially of Lee Eun Shim’s as Myung Sook, are chilling), the sounds (Myung Sook pounds madly at the piano keys in the middle of the night; a train goes thundering by on the nearby tracks): all of it adds to a sense of doom. You know, even before the climax comes, that this is not going to end happily.
What I didn’t like:
I must admit to being not a fan of the horror genre, and Hanyo falls squarely in that, so by that perspective, I’d say I didn’t really like this film. It’s not horror in the sense of spooks jumping out at people; the horror stems from the behaviour of the mentally unstable Myung Sook and the way she loses even her somewhat fragile hold on reality.
Despite not ‘liking’ (or ‘enjoying’) Hanyo, I will admit that I found it very gripping. It is melodramatic, true; it is also more than a little over the top in places. But it is, all said and done, unforgettable. Unforgettable in the way the feel of the film changes from mundane everyday reality to something that’s so completely lunatic that one wonders. Can one moment of weakness, one moment of temptation, have such disastrous consequences? Can one person, by herself, wreak such havoc? Can one family fall apart so without anybody—neighbours, friends, colleagues—realizing?
This, therefore, is one of those of films for which I’ll add a caveat. Watch, because it’s so mesmerizing in a potboiler sort of way. Watch, because it’s so fascinatingly chilling.
(Incidentally, Hanyo—often considered one of the three best classic South Korean films—proved disastrous for Lee Eun Shim’s career. She drew such universal hatred for her very convincing portrayal of the evil Myung Sook that no directors wanted to cast her in their films after this one).
As is usual when I review a film that is either adapted from a book or has other cinematic adaptations—a comparison of Hanyo with the version of the same name, made in 2010.
Hanyo, 2010, has a basic storyline very similar to its earlier version: a young woman is employed as a maid in a house where the mistress is pregnant. She ends up having a turbulent affair with the man of the house, and becomes pregnant—with disastrous consequences for nearly all.
The later Hanyo, however, differs in several important aspects from the earlier one. Here, for instance, the household isn’t a middle-class one, but a disgustingly affluent one, where leftover oysters are thrown away after dinner. The maid (played by Jeon Do Yeon) isn’t a housemaid, but nanny to the little girl who is till now the sole child in the family. The mistress of the house is a spoilt young woman who is hugely pregnant with twins, and who relies a good deal on her mother—a canny, cynical, and ruthless woman—for advice and guidance. The master of the house, Go Hoon (played by Lee Jung Jae) is the quintessential chaebol: successful, arrogant, coldly clinical at most times. The entire setting is many, many notches up from the comfortable little family home of the 1960s’ Kims.
… and the perspective is different. While Hanyo (1960) was from the point of view of the Kims and pretty much cast Myung Sook as the villain of the piece—the maid who seduces the naïve husband—Hanyo (2010) is from the point of view of the maid. Jeon Do Yeon’s Lee Eun Yi is naïve (“childlike” as someone describes her), a child-woman who is seduced by the dominating and sexually frustrated (because of his wife’s pregnancy) Go Hoon. It’s not as if Lee Eun Yi imagines Go Hoon loves her—she is not naïve enough for that—but somewhere along the way, she begins to imagine that their very intimate trysts mean something more than just a bit of shared physical activity.
Basically, Hanyo (2010) turns the story around. From being one about an evil housemaid who shatters the idyllic calm of a household, this becomes the story of a woman who, because of her position as a maid in a wealthy household, finds her life turned upside-down (and that because of the machinations of the rich), which in turn impels her to have her revenge.
Which film did I like more? I can’t say. The 1960 film is, to my mind, a little creepier, especially when it comes to that rat, and the character of Myung Sook, who made my skin crawl at times. But the 2010 film (directed by Im Sang Soo) is creepy in its own way, perhaps a little over the top when it comes to cold-bloodedness, but also a neater film (I won’t say ‘cleaner’, since this one has a good of fairly explicit sexual content): it has fewer characters, fewer threads, and therefore a less cluttered storyline.
Little bit of trivia:
The 2010 Hanyo contains some fleeting nods to the 1960 film. Go Hoon, for instance, relaxes by playing the piano. Echoing the opening credits of Hanyo (1960), too, where the two children are shown playing cat’s cradle, in one scene of the 2010 film, while Lee Eun Yi is in a hospital, a child and a woman are shown in the background, playing cat’s cradle. And in one very brief frame where Lee Eun Yi stretches out on her bed, exhausted after a day of hard work, her pose is very reminiscent of Myung Sook’s in the climactic scene of Hanyo (1960).