Housemaid AKA Hanyo [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - South Korea - Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (11th August 2015).
The Film

Mr. Kim (played by Kim Jin-kyu) is a music teacher at a textile factory in South Korea. A married father of 2 children: the young boy Chang-soon (played by Ahn Sung-ki) and his older preteen sister Ae-soon (played by Lee Yoo-ri) who is crippled and must use crutches to walk. Mr. Kim has just bought a new two-story house for the family, moving into the status of the upper-middle class, but to make ends meet, Mrs. Kim (played by Ju Jeung-ryu) makes hand-sewn clothes for sale and Mr. Kim offers piano lessons to factory workers. One of the female factory workers, Kyung-hee (played by Um Aing-ran) decides to take piano lessons at Mr. Kim’s home. With the pregnant Mrs. Kim suffering from exhaustion, they decide to hire a housemaid for help. With Kyung-hee’s introduction, a young housemaid (played by Lee Eun-shim) is hired.

The relationship between the housemaid and the family is awkward from the get go, as the kids have difficulty with her, she rarely smiles, and hintingly lusts toward Mr. Kim. When Mrs. Kim decides to return to her hometown for a while because of the continued exhaustion, things get complicated for Mr. Kim. The piano student Kyung-hee admits that she is falling for him and wants to start an affair. But when Mr. Kim pushes her away, she claims that even if he doesn’t start an affair with her, she could still lie about the two of them having an affair which would jeopardize his marriage and his career. Mr. Kim forces her out of the house, but with the housemaid overhearing Kyung-hee’s plan, it sparks an idea for her to seduce Mr. Kim. She comes in from the balcony, all soaking wet from the rain, strips nude in front of the sexually frustrated Mr. Kim, and their secret affair is sparked like lightning (literally).

But the nightmare really begins when the housemaid becomes pregnant with Mr. Kim’s child. Mrs. Kim finds out about the affair, and forces the housemaid to lose the baby by having a miscarriage in order to protect the Kim family name. But with the housemaid still in love with Mr. Kim and seeking revenge against Mrs. Kim for the death of her unborn child, the house becomes a place of sadistic mind games, which leads to more than just one tragedy…

“The Housemaid” was the 10th feature film directed by Kim Ki-young which at the time of its release in 1960, post-war South Korea was still rebuilding and restructuring. It was also made and released at an in-between time in the South Korean political landscape: After the April Revolution in 1960 which forced out President Syngman Rhee and before the implementation of the restrictive Motion Picture Law of 1963, laid out by President Park Chung-hee. With that being said, the film was made with fairly little restrictions and addressed some taboo elements and that could have gotten the film censored if it were made a few years later.

The film shows the “upper-middle class dream” of South Koreans post war: A happily married family with children. The purchase of a two-story house with a staircase. A new TV set. A westernized lifestyle with the food and clothes. A live-in housemaid. The only thing missing here is the purchase of a car, which is a central theme of the 1963 film “Tosuni: The Birth of Happiness”. Although it still depicts traditional Korean culture, as the character of Mrs. Kim still wears the traditional Korean “hanbok”, and how “social status” and is more important than “showing shame”.

There’s an interesting turn of character sympathy, as at first the audience is sympathetic toward Mrs. Kim as the housemaid is tormenting her mentally, but later with the loss of the housemaid’s unborn child and the manipulative intentions of Mrs. Kim, sympathies are reversed, depending on the scene. Who is tormenting who as it turns into a game of “how far are you willing to go?” The female leads overtake the male lead of Mr. Kim, who becomes quite feeble and weak minded in the latter half of the film, almost like a finger puppet in a masochistic game.

Director Kim uses many visual motifs. The rat poison, the piano, the sewing machine, and the staircase are like individual characters that support the story. The camera movements and framing of the scenes are very well crafted, giving a very clear sense of space of the household, and also using techniques to show erotic moments with the housemaid’s lustful scenes without it being gratuitous, but suggestive in the way director Alfred Hitchcock was famous for. Certain visual elements like a lightning strike with a fire starting, or a bartender shaking a drink up and down in the foreground in front of Mr. Kim have sexual connotation, but there are also some direct shots of the housemaid kissing and licking Mr. Kim’s leg and or the housemaid grabbing her breasts after she comes in from the rain with only a nightie on. Sexuality was not commonly on screen before “The Housemaid” in Korean cinema. Neither was on-screen violence, with the exception of war films. Kim definitely pushed the boundaries in Korean cinema at the time and also in later films such as “The Insect Woman” in 1972 which dealt with underage prostitution and mental illness, or “Ieodo” which had elements of necrophilia, and also a scene of a hammering and nailing of an erect penis which is not for the squeamish. But it still became the highest grossing film in South Korea in 1972.

The exceptional standout in the film is the actress Lee Eun-shim who was only 19 at the time of production, playing the sadistic and complicated housemaid. Like a femme fatale from film noir combined with a psychopath, she is a character the audience sympathizes, empathizes, loves, and hates from time to time. The performance is not over the top, but quite restrained and seductive. She did not have a lengthy film career, appearing only in a handful of Korean films and later marrying Lee Seong-gu, the new wave director of films such as "Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon" from 1967 and " The General's Moustache" from 1968. The young actress Lee Yoo-ri on the other hand, probably did the poorest in depicting a crippled girl with weak legs, by sometime as getting up and walking very quickly at times, at an impossible pace. It makes me wonder why they even made her character crippled at all, as it doesn’t serve any purpose to the plot, except it gives the younger brother someone to pick on. And in another performance flaw, with Kim Jin-kyu playing a pianist, it is almost embarrassing how his fingers don’t match the music at all. He could have at least tried to mime the keys, or have cutaway shots instead. Besides that, his character starts off as a strong and strict man, but once his libido is taken control of by the housemaid, he becomes the most manipulated and weakest character in the film. Although his character arc is important, his performance is but a shadow compared to Lee Eun-shim. Another flawed character is Kyung-hee. Her intentions are never quite clear, like why she doesn’t just become the housemaid herself if she is really in love with Mr. Kim, or why she doesn’t follow through with her blackmail?

“The Housemaid” is called one of the greatest Korean films of all time, and for good reasons. The suspense is top notch as well as the cinematography and editing. It is also important because of the boundaries it pushed and the influence it had on later filmmakers. It was actually quite successful on its theatrical release, but as with many Korean films at the time, it didn’t have longevity due to neglect and bankruptcy of film companies. For a long time it was not a film that could easily be seen. Most Korean cinephiles were more familiar with Kim’s remakes of “The Housemaid”: “Fire Woman” in 1970 and “The Woman of Fire ‘82” in 1982, but not the original since the film had been lost. In 1982, the original negative of the film was found in, but reels 5 and 8 were missing. In 1990 an export festival print of “The Housemaid” was found, but the condition of the film was far from desirable. The film was heavily damaged, and the print had large burned-in handwritten English subtitles that sometimes took up 1/3 of the image. With the rediscovery, interest in Kim’s filmography started to gain momentum within the film community, in which his films often looked at female psychology, sexuality, and melodramatic horror while pushing censorship boundaries. His career was on a rebound in the 1990’s but unfortunately it was cut short when he and his wife were killed in a house fire in 1998. So, is “The Housemaid” really the “Citizen Kane” of Korean cinema? I would say it is closer to the “Psycho” of Korean cinema (and not just because both films share an iconic staircase), as it is often imitated but rarely surpassed.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray, which can be played back on any Blu-ray player worldwide

Video

“The Housemaid” was restored by The Korean Film Archive and The World Cinema Project (at the time called “The World Cinema Foundation”) in 2008. It used the 2 existing sources: the original camera negative which was missing reels 5 and 8, and the export festival print. For reels 5 and 8, it sustained heavy damage and had burned-in English subtitles. KOFA and WCP took an undertaking to remove the subtitles, using both manual removal by technicians and digital removal with the newly created MJW 1.0 software. For the most part, the original negative was in very good condition. The restoration removed dust, debris, and splices, and looks excellent, although there are the minor instances of marks that were not corrected. Reels 5 and 8 are problematic, with darkened blacks and blown out white levels and constant tramline marks but they have been digitally restored to make it a more watchable state. The subtitle removal is not perfect, and it shows, having anomalies and unusual shifts in objects within the frame during the moments of subtitle removal. It is a commendable job they did with the restoration, but it is nowhere near ideal.

Comparing the Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino Blu-ray to the US Criterion Blu-ray, it is clear that both are from the same restored source (as it is the only one), with both editions having the same introductory text screens on the restoration and the restoration credits at the end, although the transfers are not identical.

Framed at the 1.53:1 aspect ratio in the AVC MPEG-4 codec, the Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino Blu-ray has a very good film-like appearance. Film grain is visible and details are clear with the greytones, with the exception of reels 5 and 8. There is a sudden drop in quality during those 2 reels, but that is to be expected.

By contrast the Criterion looks much worse. There seems to be quite a bit of noise reduction applied making faces look unnaturally smooth, and sometimes the greytones are not sure whether to be closer to white or closer to black, causing anomalies. Blacks sometimes seem “too black” and details are lost in the process.

Take a look at the 10 minute mark when Kyung-hee arrives at the Kim house for piano lessons for the first time. The detail of the wall behind Kim looks naturally fine on the Korean Blu-ray, with the top of the frame being dark and gradually becoming lighter below, but the US Blu-ray looks like white noise, with the dark area being too black, and the light area being too white and the in between grey looking terrible, like a filter applied to have less greyscale.

The Korean Film Archive DVD from 2009, did not have these greyscale problems and is close to what the Korean Blu-ray looks like. Why the Criterion looks so drastically different is a mystery.

But not everything is perfect on the Korean Blu-ray. At 42:31 - 42:57, just after the housemaid’s seduction to the first shot in the music room at the factory, the image is suddenly choppy and strobing. The sound is fine, but it looks like things are moving at 18fps instead of the 24fps speed. The soundtrack is fine, so it is not a slowdown. The US Blu-ray does not have this problem and the 2009 DVD does not have this problem. A possible mastering error?

The Blu-ray's runtime is (111:04), with the restoration information and credits.

Audio

There is only one soundtrack option available:
Korean DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 dual mono

The Korean Film Archive has stated that the soundtrack was just as painstakingly restored when the film was restored. The biggest problem was that many Korean films at the time did not use synchronized sound but rerecorded most of the dialogue and sound in post-production, so lip movements sometimes mismatched. In addition to the usual background hiss and noise as well as the terribly damaged soundtrack of reels 5 and 8, the sound was meticulously restored in 2008.

For the Blu-ray release, the soundtrack has been remastered from scratch, using newer technology to better lip match the dialogue and restoring background sounds. The re-synchronized soundtrack is clearly better synched and better sounding than the 2009 DVD release, reminiscent of the difference between the older DVDs of "Rashomon" and Blu-ray of "Rashomon" which utilized the Academy restoration, having a world of a difference in the re-synchronized soundtrack during the scene of the medium summoning the dead samurai.

Optional English, French, Japanese, and Korean subtitles are provided for the main feature.
The subtitles are in a white font and are easy to read and the English translation is the same as what was used on the 2009 DVD. In comparison, the Criterion Blu-ray used the Korean Film Archive’s English subtitle translation as a basis, so it is the same for about 70% of the time. There are a few differences such as the Korean edition saying “I will….” while the Criterion says “I’m going to…” which is a minor difference. Some grammar errors have been corrected on the Criterion, such as the Korean release saying “I’m going to use the man’s room” is changed to “I’m going to use the men’s room” on the Criterion. Overall, the Criterion has better English subtitles. The Japanese subtitles were also checked, and there were no problematic sentences with the Japanese subtitle track.

Extras

The Korean Film Archive has put together a generous package of bonus features for the Blu-ray, but don’t sell the 2009 DVD just yet!

Audio commentary by film director Park Chan-wook and film critic Lee Dong-jin
Newly recorded for the Blu-ray, the two start off by talking about how special the film is to get a Blu-ray release. Park Chan-wook talks about the stylistic influences the film had on his work, specifically “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Thirst” and how when the film was screened, many people were yelling “Kill that bitch!” to the screen. The two also discuss the similarities of Kim’s work to Luis Bunuel, Shohei Imamura, and Alfred Hitchcock, the social-political climate of South Korea at the time of its release, comparisons between the original and the latter remakes by the director himself, and the tongue-in-cheek ending.
In Korean with optional English and Korean subtitles

"Martin Scorsese on The Housemaid" featurette (1:03) (1080p)
Did the camera operator forget to wear glasses? The introduction is terribly out of focus and should have been reshot! Martin Scorsese gives a quick introduction and praise to the film. Note that this is not the same introduction found on the US Criterion edition (which goes a little more in depth on the restoration process).
1.78:1, In English with optional English and Korean subtitles

"Directors on Kim Ki-young" documentary (47:48) (480i)
This 2006 documentary by Kim Hong-joon features 22 film directors paying tribute to Kim’s work. The directors are: Kim Gok, Kim Dae-seung, Kim Sun, Kim Jee-woon, Kim Tae-young, Ryoo Seung-wan, Min Dong-hyun, Park Ki-hyung, Park Soo-young, Park Jae-young, Park Jin-pyo, Park Chan-wook, Byun Young-joo, Bong Joon-ho, Song Il-gon, Shin Jane, Um Hye-jung, Oh Seung-wook, Im Sang-soo (the director of the 2010 remake of "The Housemaid", Jang Jun-hwan, Jung Yoon-chul and Jung Ji-woo. Whew… The directors talk about their impressions of the director, how some of them were intimidated when meeting him for the first time, and it also includes clips of the director's films as well as the interviewee's films with comparisons to Kim's work. This documentary is also featured on the "Goryeojang" disc of the Kim Ki-young Collection 4-DVD set from KOFA.
1.33:1, In Korean with optional English, French, Japanese, and Korean subtitles

"The Box of Death" 1955 feature film by Kim Ki-Young (79:05) (480i)
Synopsis: A communist guerrilla is sent into South Korea from the North to whip up public discontent. He is suspected by a local village youth who manages to penetrate the Communists’ hideout, in order to set a timebomb there.
“The Box of Death” was director Kim Ki-young’s feature film debut. While the film was thought to have been lost after its theatrical release, the film was discovered in May of 2011 at the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), although the original synchronous soundtrack is still lost. Ironic as it was the first Korean film to have a synchronous soundtrack.

The film has a digitally restored image, but nowhere the standards of “Housemaid”. Dust, specs, and splices seem to have gone through a digital cleanup, but there are some problems that remain. The big issue in the first reel seems to be stability of the image: trying to fix the wobbly image by trying to center the characters inadvertently made other object within the frame wobblier. Sizes of objects change in size little by little, but it at least doesn’t last through the whole film. Dust and specs are still visible, but I assume it used to look worse.

The film already shows promising work from Kim, with excellent framing used, for example during the fight scene 42 minutes in. As for following the plot, it is a bit complicated to do so without accompanying sound. The soundtrack has been lost, so the film plays completely silent and there are no subtitles. If they had gotten a hold of the screenplay and used that to subtitle the film, it could have been easier to watch, but I have to assume that the screenplay has not survived.
1.33:1, Silent with no subtitles

"I Am a Truck" 1953 documentary short by Kim Ki-young (17:44) (480i)
Kim started as a documentary filmmaker, and in this documentary short, it shows a truck used in the war being disassembled into scrap and its parts being reused. Instead of the usual narration of what is happening, the narration is interestingly in the perspective of a truck, saying “I’m having my tires removed” and explaining what is happening, giving the short a more personal feel rather than a standard explanatory film.
1.33:1, in Korean with optional English and Korean subtitles

42-page Booklet
Standard with all KOFA releases, the booklet is half in Korean and half in English. The booklet includes photos, posters, information on the film, a director biography and filmography, contemporary review excerpts, information about the restoration and essays.

So what is missing?
Specifically, the extras from the 2009 DVD are not present on the Blu-ray. The audio commentary by film critic Kim Young-Jin and film director Bong Joon-Ho has not been ported to the Blu-ray, which only has a newer commentary track. "Image Comparison Before & After Restoration" featurette (28:48) which compared the reels 5 and 8 before restoration and after restoration is not on the Blu-ray either, which makes you appreciate the effort put into the restoration of those particular scenes. Also the "Picture slideshow" (1:45) was not carried over. And, the 2009 DVD's booklet had some differing essays and information compared to the Blu-ray booklet. Considering most of the principal cast is still alive (that I am aware of), I wish interviews could have been conducted with the cast, Kim Ki-young’s son, or members of the crew. Sung-kee Ahn who played the son in the film became a prolific actor who continues to this day. On the other hand, Lee Yoo-ri who played the sister and her sole credit being in “The Housemaid”, disappeared from the film world entirely, so it may be hard tracking her down. But it would be very interesting to hear from their experiences.

Packaging

The Korean Film Archive releases are known for their lavish digipak packaging, but there is a slight change in design for the Blu-rays.

Packaged in a standard size black Blu-ray keep case, it is housed in a sturdy slipcase which holds the keep case and the 42-page booklet. The slipcase, designed by Plain Archive is labeled "001" on the spine, being the first release of the KOFA Blu-ray collection, and the calligraphy lettering is embossed. It's a great looking case, although having a picture of what is a scene toward the end of the film is a rather spoiling choice.

Overall

Kim Ki-young's most celebrated film and the first in "The Housemaid" trilogy is a great start for the Korean Film Archive Blu-ray collection. With a transfer eclipsing the US Criterion Blu-ray, a newly restored soundtrack, and valuable extras, they have done an exceptional job, only hindered by the fact that the previous DVD extras were not carried over and the possibly mastering error in the one scene at the 42 minute point.

The Film: A- Video: B+ Audio: B Extras: B Overall: B

 


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