The enigmatic opening scene of the South Korean drama "The Housemaid" will ring true for anyone who's ever been lost in an Asian metropolis. Above the neon welter of modern Seoul, as shoppers and kids riding scooters are distracted on their cell phones, a barefoot young woman steps out on a ledge and surrenders to gravity.
The relevance of that scene, and of the loopy, Lynch-ian finale of the film, is unclear, but in between, director Im Sang-soo has crafted an erotic thriller whose cool beauty speaks for itself.
One of the gawkers in the aftermath of the suicide is a seemingly carefree young woman named Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn). Eun-yi is soon hired as the maid of a wealthy Korean family. The master of the house is imperious Mr. Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), whose young wife, Hae-ra (Seo Woo), is very pregnant with twins. But the real boss is the old cook, Mrs. Cho (Yun Yeo-jong), who knows all the family secrets and pilfers from the vintage wine collection.
Even if you haven't seen the original version of this story from 1960, it's easy to predict that hunky Mr. Hoon and lively, naive Eun-yi will end up in bed (or the bathtub) together. Instead of getting hooked by suspense, you watch a film like this to observe the slow turning of some very polished screws.
After Hae-ra and her social-climbing mother (Park Ji-young) plot a poisonous revenge against the housemaid who has intruded on their illusion of happiness, this constipated chamber piece is pried open. But the flood of last-act melodrama does not include a morally satisfying resolution or even much character insight. The movie kowtows to the old truism that the rich are different — but it does it with a sardonic smile.
What "The Housemaid" • Three stars (out of four) • Rating Not rated • Run time 1:46 • Content Nudity, mature themes and violence • Language Korean with subtitles • Where Plaza Frontenac