'The Housemaid' Rises Above Its Erotic Thriller Conventions

UP IN SMOKE: After the surprising Mysterious Skin in 2004, Gregg Araki returns to his crappy, trashy roots with the disjointed Kaboom.

UP IN SMOKE: After the surprising Mysterious Skin in 2004, Gregg Araki returns to his crappy, trashy roots with the disjointed Kaboom.

The trailer for 2010 South Korean film The Housemaid (MPI DVD) makes it look like the kind of late-night Cinemax “erotic thriller” melodrama of which the world needs no more. But writer/director Im Sang-soon and his film have a lot more in mind than lurid titillation.

Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) is young, attractive, middle class at best, and needs a job. She finds her way into the employ of Goh Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), a smirking young über-wealthy mogul of some sort who needs someone to help run the house and look after his young daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon) while his pampered wife Hae-ra (Woo Sen) gestates twins. Good-natured, affectionate Eun-yi soon wins over Nami; she also draws Hoon’s attention, and doesn’t spurn his attempts at seduction as he draws her into a torrid affair.

So far so typical, with the stage set for some tawdry endgame, and both arrive eventually. But Eun-yi shares household duties with pulled-together older housemaid Miss Cho (Yun Yeo-jong), and that’s where Im’s film starts to differ from the usual shenanigans. Watchful Miss Cho notices the newcomer’s decent heart, but she also notices that Eun-yi and the boss are having sex, she notices that Eun-yi is pregnant even before she does herself, and she dutifully informs Hae-ra what’s going on. Threatened by the affair and the prospect of an illegitimate heir, Hae-ra and her scheming mother (Park Ji-young) set out to manipulate Eun-yi into an abortion, or worse. While Miss Cho is the catalyst that sets the denouement in motion, she is also witness and provider of perspective. She’s fond of sneaking her employers’ wine, which tends to bring out her melancholy and bitterness about the dissatisfactions and indignities of serving others as a life. In short, Miss Cho helps make clear that The Housemaid is about class.

Im adapted his film from Kim Ki-young’s 50-year-old Korean classic of the same name, in which the employer was a struggling middle-class householder and the new housemaid an unstable aggressor. The difference in social strata and roles in the plot machinery make a huge difference in the impact of the story. Which is not to say that this is some kind of dry polemic: Im and cinematographer Lee Hyung-deok make the most of the luxe setting with dramatic compositions, often favoring extreme low and high angles, and the cast manages to find room to do some subtle work amid the rising stakes. The ending at first feels like an overblown misfire, but in hindsight it does carry some resonance with Im’s larger, timely message: The less affluent are people too.

Gregg Araki made his name in the ’90s with a different sort of trash—indie flicks that were aggressively young and ambi/sexual and stilted and, well, kinda crappy—see The Living End, Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, et al. In 2004, he surprised nearly everyone with Mysterious Skin, adapting Scott Heim’s novel into an unbeatably strange yet sensitive tale of sexual abuse, hustling, and space aliens that put Hollywood on notice that star Joseph Gordon-Levitt was much more than that kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun and that Araki might be more than a bag of his usual tricks/tics. Anna Faris-starring stoner comedy Smiley Face followed; it wasn’t that funny, but hey, Anna Faris. Now Araki returns to his aggressively young, ambi/sexual, stilted, crappy trash roots with Kaboom (MPI DVD). It’s like Mysterious Skin never happened.

Thomas Dekker plays 18-year-old Smith, a skinny bi college student struggling with his feelings for hunky, lunky surfer dormmate Thor (Chris Zylka), who is straight. Or straight-ish, anyway, even though he color-coordinates his many pairs of flip-flops. Smith falls into a FWB arrangement with brassy blond chick London (Juno Temple), while his BFF Stella (Haley Bennett) is bewitched by Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida)—literally, ’cause she’s a witch, see. A mysterious woman (Nicole LaLiberte) who looks like Carrot Top appears in Smith’s dreams, in danger, and then maybe disappears in real life. Or is it her twin? Drugstore Cowboy’s Kelly Lynch, looking very fit and very orange, phones it in (as in, on the phone) as Smith’s mom, because his own mysterious past has something to do with this, as does the end of the world. But there’s always time for a threesome. And animal masks. And nearly unrecognizable vintage Araki superstar James Duval, who wore an animal mask in Donnie Darko, which was also sort of about the end of the world too. And that’s kinda how things go until they stop.

Dekker sure is pretty, and Bennett gives good deadpan. Araki gives her the best of his trademark faux youth-speak zingers, including one about something being as fun as “sucking a fart out of a dead seagull’s ass.” (Edgy.) How much you’re likely to enjoy this probably correlates to how much you enjoyed his pre-Mysterious Skin work, though it’s worth noting that Kaboom’s bubble-headed silliness wouldn’t be nearly so disappointing if all signs of the snap and assurance Araki displayed for a minute there hadn’t apparently gone up in smoke.

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