The Housemaid: Crossing Borders

On Film / Essays — Dec 17, 2013

There has long been a tendency in film culture to think of the cinema of Third World countries as dominated by trite melodramas. In many ways, The Housemaid—made by Kim Ki-young in South Korea in 1960, when the country was still part of the developing world and reeling from brutal Japanese colonial occupation, a civil war, and extreme poverty—certainly fits the melodramatic mold: its story concerns a marital crisis (a staple of the genre) precipitated by the hiring of a new maid, and its emotions often run violently high. But it is far from the product of an underdeveloped cinematic sensibility; with its stylistic restraint and self-deprecating humor, it deviates from the excesses and self-seriousness commonly associated with melodrama, giving it an unyielding power. And it reaches beyond its glossy surfaces to question the validity of conservative family values and class divisions.

Kim Ki-young was born around 1920 in Seoul (in the south) but raised mainly in Pyongyang (in the north), before Korea was divided after World War II. After high school, Kim lived for some time in Japan, then earned a degree in otolaryngology at Seoul National University. During the Korean War, he served as an intern at a hospital in Busan, South Korea’s temporary capital, before accepting a job making newsreels for the U.S. embassy’s Cultural Affairs and Public Relations Department (producing anti-Communist propaganda for the United States paid a lot more than examining patients’ nostrils). He abandoned his medical career and, soon after the war, began making films. He produced eight features between 1955 and 1960 before The Housemaid, inspired by neorealism and using the documentary skills he’d picked up during the war.

Alongside the likes of Shin Sang-ok and Yi Man-hee, Kim led South Korean cinema’s charge during its golden age of the 1960s and early 1970s, a time when the nation’s film industry was so beloved by its people that the military government had trouble regulating it and it often got away with subversive themes. It was also one of the most active and profitable film industries in Asia at the time, producing at its peak (1968–71) over two hundred films per year. Despite the large and devoted audience at home, South Korean cinema of this era remained relatively unknown internationally, and it is still left unmentioned in most English-language world cinema histories.

Unlike some of his fellow golden age filmmakers, Kim had a sensibility that was often at odds with Korean aesthetic tradition, which is characterized by the thematic motifs of han (pent-up grief), pastoral mise-en-scènes, and understated, quasi-Buddhist emotions. Instead of sublimating han, Kim’s characters, as The Housemaid attests, plot revenge; instead of mountainous rural landscapes and thatched roofs, his films take place on overpopulated asphalt sidewalks, against neon lights, and in Western-style mansions hung with cubist paintings; and instead of Buddhist minimalism, he prefers Freudian desire. Kim, drawing mainly on funds from his wife’s successful dental practice, financed, wrote, directed, art directed, and edited many of his films, including his masterpiece, The Housemaid, which he made in his early forties. The first departure from the neorealist vein of his early films, it has, like so much great cinema, the ability to transmute visual and aural details into existential inquiries.

Kim uses a story-within-a-story structure to tell his tale of a maid (Lee Eun- shim) who is hired to help manage domestic affairs in the Kim household, where the wife and mother (Ju Jeung-nyeo) has fallen ill from overwork at her at-home job as a seamstress. The two-floor Western-style house the Kims and their two children have recently acquired is simply too big for Mrs. Kim to manage. But after the nameless maid allows herself to be seduced by Mr. Kim, she plunges the entire family into a wicked nightmare. The structure of The Housemaid blurs the division between reality and fiction, making for a hallucinatory experience. Much of the music is diegetic, the acting is subtle, and the revenge plot concocted by the angry maid, who seeks blood to avenge the loss of her child, is not overwhelmingly implausible, despite being rooted in melodrama. The constant movement of the camera, exquisite close-ups, meticulous framing of shadows, and occasional use of an at times cacophonous modernist score merit comparisons with the great German Kammerspielfilme (chamber dramas) of the twenties and early thirties. So limpid and nimble are the jokes, so sarcastic the caricature of the nuclear family, so plain the passions and desires that play across the surfaces of The Housemaid, that one might be tempted to think it was made in a society as liberal as Weimar Germany, not one usually governed by brutal dictatorships.

In the eighties and early nineties, Kim and other directors of his ilk were forgotten by the public, thanks to the popularity of television, the prolonged rule of military leaders who wanted films to serve their ideologies, and the removal of many of the trade restrictions placed on Hollywood films. But then in the mid to late nineties, a new generation of directors (many of whose names have become synonymous with the international South Korean cinema renaissance of the twenty-first century: Park Chan-wook, Ryu Seung-wan, Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woon) brought another breath of fresh air to the national cinema. These young filmmakers, inspired by global cinema culture and drawn more to urban decay than provincial or traditional values, had discovered Kim’s movies at local thrift stores, used video shops, and second-run theaters, and no Korean filmmaker of a previous era appealed to them more. They found his vision uniquely grotesque, irrepressible, and rebellious, and they decided to help resuscitate his career, by holding retrospectives of his work, inviting him to sit on festival juries, and volunteering to assist on his next feature (which unfortunately never got made, because of his sudden, tragic death).

Though the original version of The Housemaid had not been released on VHS, because two of its reels had been lost, Kim’s own remakes of the film, Fire Woman (1971) and Fire Woman ’82 (1982), were available. The young filmmakers were so taken with the remakes that they were eager to see the original, and they got their wish in 1997. The recently inaugurated Busan International Film Festival held a Kim retrospective that year, with the two previously missing reels from The Housemaid recovered from a newly discovered release print (though with obnoxious English subtitles, as discussed below), and the young Korean filmmakers’ taste proved to be consistent with that of international art-house moviegoers. Retrospectives of Kim’s work became the vogue at many festivals and cinematheques around the world. Berlin, London, Belgrade, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Paris, and many other places honored this maverick filmmaker. He died a couple of days before he was scheduled to depart for Berlin to attend the first-ever retrospective of his work overseas in 1998. The cause of his death was a house fire set off by a short circuit—a bizarre ending even for a man whose vision was as uncanny as Kim’s.

Of the thirty-two feature films Kim made in the course of his career, only twenty-two survive intact. His first picture, Box of Death (1955), miraculously turned up at the Washington National Records Center in Maryland in 2011, without its sound reel, and a twenty-minute portion of Touch-Me-Not (1956) was recently recovered, but eight films still remain missing altogether. Despite the militancy of its government, South Korea didn’t actually participate in any wars during Kim’s career, which leads one to wonder what could account for the devastating loss of such a significant portion of an auteur’s body of work.

An unlikely joint effort on the part of hatmakers and chemists, driven by desperate postwar conditions that engendered a countrywide abhorrence of waste and an enterprising national mind-set, was responsible for the insuperable loss of not just those works of Kim’s but many films in South Korea. After owners of factories that manufactured a kind of straw hat popular among farmers realized that a strip of celluloid lent the headgear’s otherwise flimsy brim an extraordinary sturdiness and, at the same time, made for a stylish decorative border, they began to purchase apparently worthless, worn- out 16 mm and 35 mm prints in bulk, once the films had finished their dollar- theater runs. Many classic titles were chopped into thousands of pieces as they were moved on a conveyor belt from exhaustion to extinction. When the popularity of the straw hats dwindled in the 1970s because of a rapid decline in the farming population, innovative chemists developed a way to efficiently extract silver from celluloid film. More invaluable works evaporated in that alchemical process, causing irreversible damage to South Korean film history; over 70 percent of films made before 1960 are now reported missing. This frenzy for the reuse of celluloid meant that film preservation didn’t exist in the country before the 1990s.

Given this climate of total disregard for cultural heritage, it is amazing that The Housemaid did not end up being recycled as silverware or a sun shield. Because it was personally financed by Kim, his household kept the original negative. However, those two reels were still missing. Only in the early 1990s was a release print, which had been made for overseas film festivals, found in storage at the Korean Film Commission. The problem was that the print had burned-in English subtitles that had been hand-scribbled by Korean calligraphers at the time of its export in 1960, and the letters were inconsistent in size, though all enormous. Three-line subtitles sometimes covered more than a third of the frame. The placement of the subtitles also varied slightly from frame to frame, causing the dialogue to sometimes waltz a bit to the left or the right as the film rolled, which made for an unnecessarily dynamic viewing experience for those who had to negotiate both the moving camera and the dancing subtitles.

Where standard restoration processes focus on the removal of dust and scratches, flicker and grain reduction, and color grading, the task the Korean archivists faced was far more difficult, as they had to erase each stroke of the English lettering on every frame of two ten-minute segments. Even with the financial support provided by the World Cinema Project, the job proved to be impossible with existing resources. Complicating matters further, the restored film was scheduled to premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It was then that the Korean Film Archive summoned timely assistance from computer scientists at Seoul National University’s Intelligent Signal Processing Laboratory, who teamed up with administrators at the Korea Creative Content Agency and technicians at the HFR-Digital Film Laboratory in Seoul to develop a software program that made the erasure of every trace of the subtitles possible just in time for the world premiere in May 2008.

Kim Ki-young defied both genre rules and social conventions by playfully crossing the borders between reality and fiction, social rules and personal cravings, and gluttony and self-restraint, helping Koreans suffering poverty and other postwar trauma forget their miseries. Now, the WCP and the KFA together have made that vision available for all of us who are left to savor it.