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'Maid' in Korea; Palme d'Or nominee is class study of infidelity, patriarchy

Here's a new one for American audiences: a domestic melodrama set almost entirely within the palatial walls of a high-powered South Korean family's mansion.

"The Housemaid" got a boost from its nomination in 2010 for the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious Palme d'Or award, which opened the film to countries and markets previously unthinkable.

Director Im Sang-soo's rethinking of Kim Ki-young's 1960 classic of the same name moves glacially -- gliding like a dancer in a ball gown from the prenatal yoga room to the grand marble entryway to the well-appointed opera listening room.

It is within this excessive extravagance that infidelity unfolds. The original movie was set in a middle-class household and cast the housemaid as initiator and man of the house as willing -- if hesitant -- participant. Roles are reversed here.

The housemaid Eun-yi is cast as "the other woman." It is her employment as nanny to the couple's child that sets husband Hoon's eyes wandering and the trio of womenfolk's eyes shooting daggers every which way.

On the surface, there is the psychological impact on a group of women -- wife Hae Ra, her mother, the family's cook Mrs. Cho and, most of all, Eun-yi -- of the actions wrought by an unfaithful man. He is just a man, after all. Is "cheating just part of the package?"

South Korean actress Jeon Do-yeon bestows Eun-yi with so much naivete that a comparison made by Hae Ra's methodical mother between Eun-yi and Dostoyevsky's "Idiot" must have written itself into the script. "The Housemaid" neatly parallels the classic tale.

But beyond the interpersonal conflict, the movie is a portrayal of how rigidly stratified this society's classes are -- a theme driven home with scorn when porcelain-complexioned Hae Ra calls Eun-yi "cheap" and "common."

The movie spells out in no uncertain terms that deference in such a patriarchal class structure is a volatile mix. Despair and shame bottle up until they explode in unexpected ways. Between the deception and self-effacement, "The Housemaid" rarely has time to peek its head out of the deep, dark hole it digs itself.

Does anything set the film apart from a daytime soap opera -- other than its far more stylized and erotic mise-en-scene? Both have perplexing character motivation changes and abruptly switched allegiances. And the film's plot depends on that tried-and-true soap opera concept of who knows what? And when do they know it?

Only on the big screen, however, could a highly sensationalized ending subtly bring you full circle to the film's first moments hours after viewing for a thought-provoking "aha" moment.




3 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: Jeon Do-yeon, Jung-Jae Lee and Seo-Hyeon Ahn    

DIRECTOR: Im Sang-soo    

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes    

RATING: Unrated, but R equivalent for language, nudity, explicit sex, strong adult themes.    

THE LOWDOWN: A man's affair with his family's housemaid leads to dark consequences in South Korea.

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