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.