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The essence of melodrama is emotion – tempestuous desire, shattering ecstasy, lacerating regret. It’s a thrill to watch this radical unbridling of the heart, because it reminds us that our own emotions are real – and dangerous. When the lights come back on, the big scenery-chewers will be dead, doomed or traumatised; the temperate onlookers will live to shrug another day. That pay-off is why melodrama is the most conservative genre of them all; it’s never much appealed to the avant garde.

Mess with the ending, though, and the chaos never stops. And chaos is exactly what we’re left with at the close of Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960), an outsized potboiler from the golden age of South Korean filmmaking, cited by the likes of Bong Joon Ho as a key film in the development of the country’s cinematic identity. In 1960, huge cultural and political tectonic plates were crashing together in a country trying to find itself after decades of war, Japanese imperialism and American occupation. Born out of upheaval and a sense of wide-open possibility, it’s a film that confronts us directly with our cowardly demands for boring old narrative closure.

Plotwise, the film is delightfully unhinged. Kim Dong-sik (Kim Jin-kyu), an upwardly mobile dad, hires a pretty young maid, Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim), to pick up the domestic slack while his pregnant wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) labours over her sewing machine, making the extra cash which bankrolls their aspirations. Everybody here wants a better life, including Myung-sook. For her, it’s this or the local factory, where she must live in a dormitory under the beady eye of the company’s uptight moral minders. Dong-sik represents access not just to the trappings of a middle-class existence, but to a new mode of private life, based on Western-style domestic arrangements – up to and including, Myung-sook hopes, a relaxed attitude to adultery, and the possibility of supplanting his saintly, nameless wife.

The Housemaid (1960)

Myung-sook starts her climb to power with a series of brazen seductions, facilitated by the house’s network of exterior balconies, and the rain which makes her clothes conveniently transparent. Then, she gets pregnant – a situation which finally jerks Mrs Kim out of her sewing-machine-induced stupor. She forces Myung-sook to bring on a miscarriage by throwing herself down the stairs; Myung-sook takes this as a declaration of war, and mayhem ensues as she seizes control of the house, keeps Dong-sik as her sex-slave, kills off the older son and finally blackmails Dong-sik into a suicide pact. With a last effort he crawls down the stairs to his wife, makes a passionate speech of apology, and dies at her feet. “If only I hadn’t wanted a new house,” she sighs.

White-knuckle melodrama, then – but it’s not over. Kim has carefully wrapped these shenanigans inside an ironic envelope: the film opens with Dong-sik and his wife discussing a newspaper report about a man’s affair with his maid, and the ending of the film spits us unceremoniously back out into this initiating scene. Dong-sik, alive and smirking, walks towards the camera with a confidential air. “Listen to me!” he chuckles. “As men get older, they spend more time thinking about young women. That’s how they become attracted to women who could lead to their downfall!” By now he’s jabbing his finger around at imaginary members of the audience. “This is true for all men,” he chortles, “even those of you who are shaking their heads!” And still laughing, he waves us away as the camera pulls back through the window to the outside of the house, framing him in a grid of panes as the rain is drowned out by the score’s triumphant final fanfare.

Why is this bait-and-switch so wildly unsettling? Partly, it’s the breaking of the fourth wall, the sudden gaze-reversal which skewers the spectator hiding in the dark. But Dong-sik doesn’t just see us, he claims to read our minds. Worse, he lumps us together indiscriminately, all of us would-be adulterers and walking clichés. Our empathy – our willingness to become personally involved with Dong-sik – is suddenly pathologised as both sleazy and sheeplike. Just like that, the emotional pact of cinema – that is, classical Hollywood cinema – collapses.

Perhaps the final message of the film is not about adultery, but freedom. Do we submit to this framing, or argue back? In a post-colonial culture, such questions are alive and urgent. Hollywood norms, Kim suggests, are just a new kind of trap: find a way to subvert them. Is it any wonder Korean filmmakers love The Housemaid so much?

Sight and Sound June 2022

In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.

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