Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Bait and Switch

Film: Hanyo (The Housemaid)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

I like horror films. One of the things I like about horror films is seeing those from other countries and cultures. Every culture has its own rules and conventions for what makes something scary. These things change and evolve over time, of course, but are still recognizable as being culturally-based. Thrillers are the same way. My own definition of a thriller is a real-world horror film, something that’s shocking and awful and might be called horror except that it could potentially happen. That’s precisely where Hanyo (The Housemaid) fits. Think of any tale of damaged love and obsession that you can, and you’ll find it here.

I mean that as it sounds. Think of any film you have seen that involves an unhealthy obsession of character for another. Fatal Attaction for instance, or Play Misty for Me. While the idea for those films may not have come from Hanyo, it’s entirely possible that they were influenced by it in some respect. Certainly there are films with obsessive characters before this one, but few from this era that are this overtly sexual.

So what’s the story here? A composer/piano teacher named Kim leads a music class for a group of factory girls, one of whom develops a bit of a crush on him. However, Kim has a family—a son named Chang-Soon, a partially disabled daughter named Ae-Soon, and a pregnant wife who is overworked helping to earn money by sewing. She’s so overworked that she’s having difficulty doing much of anything. Kim asks one of his piano students to help him locate a maid to help around the house. She does, bringing him a young girl who quickly develops a crush on Kim, this time with dire consequences.

See, for whatever reason, Kim decides that this weird, backward, uneducated maid is somehow worth a dalliance and she ends up pregnant. In part, it appears that this results from the guilt Kim feels when the first girl he refused—the girl in the factory—dies. We’re not told why she has died, although we’re led to believe that it might be something like a broken heart. Regardless, Kim lets both his guard and his pants down and gets himself in trouble. This is made even more complicated by the fact that it turns out his student is the one who really loved him all along. She threatens him believably. It’s all very strange—but it’s the maid who stands between Kim and being falsely accused of raping his student, at least in his own mind. She’s what stands between him and a prison sentence, and she uses it to essentially blackmail him into sex. In its own way, it’s brilliantly twisted.

And then it goes full-on Fatal Attraction. The maid is full-on crazy and starts acting even more bizarrely. Kim’s wife convinces here to provoke a miscarriage and things get even crazier, because the maid starts messing with the kids, building up to a suicide pact with her reluctant lover.

And then—I won’t spoil it—the film goes and ruins itself with a contrived ending that completely destroys the impact of everything it had built up. It’s going for full-on Psycho stuff and wusses out in the last two minutes. It’s a damn shame, because up until the ending, it was approaching levels of disturbing rarely seen outside of a film like Repulsion.

Seriously, this is prime stuff up until the end. When Kim reveals the affair to his wife, the conversation that follows is completely believable, with him blaming his wife’s desire for money and things causing his infidelity. This is followed by the wife telling the maid to take a tumble down the stairs to induce a miscarriage—and from here it just gets nasty, since there’s a good 50 minutes left in the film. This is psychodrama as good as it gets, the sort of film that makes the audience uncomfortable because of the level of obsession and insanity being displayed. There’s talk of abortion (and this is in the early ‘60s) and credible threats against a newborn. And then the damn film goes and ruins everything with the cheapest ending I’ve seen in a long, long time.

I’m not disappointed. I’m angry.

I’m angry that I spent two hours of my life watching this, getting involved in it, being disturbed by it, only to be served up a half-assed ending that ruined everything the film had built up. All it needed to do was end two minutes sooner, and it would have been perfect.

This film was more daring than I’d have believed possible. And it paints all of the characters as terrible and ugly, except for the blackmailed Kim. His own weakness is almost understandable. His wife truly is acquisitive and distant, not even wanting to condemn the maid for what happens to Chang-soon because it would mean that the family would not be able to make a living and would lose their house. She even forces her husband to sleep with the maid to protect the family’s social standing. All of these people are terrible, and this is what forces the drama to work.

I’m mad. I’m mad at this film because I wanted to like it, and I did like it up until it ruined everything. Dammit!

Why to watch Hanyo: Psychological thriller at its finest.
Why not to watch: The ending is a cheat.


  1. You sound like me in regards to the film Once. You were invested in the characters, you were enjoying the kind of film it was, then the ending let you down by completely undoing the story up to that point. That's exactly why I hated the ending of Once. I remember you liking it, though.

    Well, we're completely flipped on Housemaid because I thought most of the movie was just a cheap sexploitation soap opera, but I loved the ending when it pulled the rug out from under our feet and showed us something unexpected. It was a twist I didn't see coming.

    So, even though I'm 180 degrees from you on this film, I completely understand where you are coming from because the same thing has happened to me with other films.

    1. I remember that discussion. I liked the ending of Once, and contend that the reason it happens that way is her, not him. Put in that situation, I'd act exactly like he does.

      With Hanyo, well, that's not the way the ending works. Instead, the ending completely changes every event in the film. It feels like cheating to get to the desired ending, and for that reason, I lose a lot of respect for it.

    2. And I liked the ending of Housemaid because I feel it made the movie, so we're both in the same situation just with different movies.

      Sometimes people watch films precisely because they know what to expect at the end of them and they want to see it, but on the rare occasions when the expected ending does not come about we dislike it. On other occasions people want to see something outside the ordinary and expected. It all depends on how we feel about a particular genre.

      I watch romance/romantic comedies precisely because I want to see the guy get the girl, whereas you've seen so many that are the same story over and over that you appreciate it when something different comes along. I've seen too many cheap thrillers where the same thing happens over and over and appreciated it when something different happened. You haven't grown tired of the genre, however, and were not looking for something different.

      Our expectations each led us to a point where we ended up disliking the endings of our respective movies. It's unfortunate, but it happens.

    3. Oh, I'm happy to be surprised. I love being surprised. I especially love it when a film can do something that makes sense that I didn't expect.

      That's not the case here, though. In fact, I'd argue that up until the last two minutes, I got something that I hadn't seen before. I mean, c'mon--it ends in a freakin' suicide pact! The housemaid manages to hold all of the power believably without even doing much of anything. It's fascinating stuff.

      The end that we're presented with, though, is the kind of thing that stopped working for me when my age hit double digits.

    4. This has kind of gotten sidetracked. I was intending the portion about the fact that I felt the ending of Housemaid saved the movie to be an aside. The main point that I was trying to convey is "I feel your pain." I completely understand where you are coming from because that's exactly what happened to me with Once.

    5. Oh, I got that, and I freely admit to being the one who sidetracked us on this.

      But yeah, we'll have to agree to disagree on this and on Once, which I really liked.

  2. So curious to read that old discussion between you and Chip. That was so him.
    In any case I am on your side on that discussion, the ending messed up the story, but Chip also had a point about the movie up to that point. It is sexploitation and it is over the top. Though I did find it facinating more than repulsive and there is so much nerve in that maid. She is raving mad and that is awesome stuff.

    1. Yeah, it is kind of a sexploitation film, but I don't have a real issue with that.

      I think in retrospect, my anger over this film has died off some, and I kind of want to watch it again just a little. I probably won't, though.