It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what kind of film The Handmaid is. It’s definitely a good one, but is it a drama, a thriller, a revenge film, a black comedy? That the film keeps the viewer questioning is certainly one of its strengths. In the end, it’s just the type of film our economically stratified times demand.
The Housemaid begins with the suicide of a young woman who jumps off a building. A few observers take note, but no one is particularly moved. The next day, an older woman contacts Eun-yi Li (Do-yeon Jeon), a young Korean woman, with the offer of a new job. Eun-yi becomes the housemaid for a wealthy couple, Hoon Goh (Jung-Jae Lee) and Hae-ra (Seo Woo), and their daughter, Nami (Seo-Hyeon Ahn). Hae-ra is also expecting twins and hopes to have more children in the future. Two kids are for people who can’t afford to raise more, Hae-ra tells her husband. Only a few days into the new job, Hoon and Eun-yi begin an affair with one another. Better said, Hoon imposes himself on Eun-yi, but she willingly obliges. In time, their affair yields drastic results, and when Hae-ra tries to reclaim control of her husband and family, things take an even more drastic turn.
This is about all I’ll dare to give away of the plot, because, in true Korean fashion, the shocking is in the watching. The themes worth discussing, though, should be evident even in this brief synopsis. First, we have Hoon’s sexual exploitation of Eun-yi. While she consents, it is clear that she really has no alternative…short of leaving her job, which apparently she needs. Of course, Hoon’s sexual dominance of Eun-yi is a direct result of his wealth and social standing. As such, the tension between the haves and the have nots is perhaps the key theme on which the film is built, along with, it obviously follows, the economic/professional exploitation of the latter at the hands of the former. Though Hae-ra’s mother tells her, and the audience, that men like Hoon will do whatever it takes to get what they want (and this makes them scary), the film itself, particularly through Sang Soo Im’s direction, Do-yeon and Jung-Jae’s acting, and the set design, makes this truth crystal clear, more fully than Hae-ra’s mother could ever express it. The cramped spaces in which Eun-yi moved and lived before accepting the housemaid job contrast starkly with the stately, elegant mansion in which her employs live. However, those cramped spaces afforded her a freedom that the many-roomed mansion will never provide.
A word about the conclusion (no spoiler here!). In its final scene, The Housemaid provides viewers with, perhaps, one of the most accurate visions of evil for our day that is infinitely more disturbing than any monster, serial killer, or ghost, which Korean filmmakers often so adeptly use. If you’re really interested in a nightmarish double bill, watch The Housemaid along with Inside Job…but be sure to have someone alongside you for suicide watch!
The Housemaid (106 mins.) is available on DVD through Netflix.