Made during a narrow two-year window in Korean history in which censorship was relaxed almost to the point of nonexistence, this film jolted audiences with its harrowing, incredibly lurid depiction of a household torn apart when a couple (a music teacher and seamstress) bring in a new housemaid whose pathology has deadly, permanent consequences beyond anything they could have imagined. Underpinning this is a caustic critique of the treatment of women with issues like pregnancy and the responsibility for children torn apart like wet tissue paper in front of the audience's eyes.
Even with a tacked-on epilogue designed to appeal to mainstream sensibilities (echoing the enforced cinematic addition to The Bad Seed, 1956), the film is still an intense experience for many viewers as it uses the conventions of melodrama and gothic storytelling to fashion a cinematic carnival ride straight into hell. Of course, the government soon cracked down on filmmakers again with particularly tight guidelines in the '70s still leaving room for occasional future masterpieces like Kim's Fire Woman (1970), often referred to as a companion feature to this film and in some senses a remake.
As with most of his contemporaries, Kim was largely forgotten even in his native country for well over a decade. However, a renaissance emerged in the '90s as South Korean filmmakers like Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho began discovering and championing his work just as they were also redefining the country's national cinematic identity. As the provocative Kyung Hyun Kim noted in his essay for Criterion about the film, "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."
However, showing The Housemaid to a wider audience proved to be no easy task since two reels had been considered lost forever. Fortunately in 1997 the crucial missing reels were discovered, albeit in lesser quality with burned-in English subtitles, and the film made a splashy resurgence at the Busan International Film Festival. Sadly the director and his wife would perish in a house fire one year later, just as his reputation was finally gaining international recognition which still increases to this day.
A subsequent restoration of The Housemaid with the problematic, hand-drawn subtitles finally eliminated was eventually accomplished by the Korean Film Archive with the support of the World Cinema Project, and it premiered at Cannes in 2008 to another warm reception. An English-subtitled Korean DVD followed soon after (along with an additional subtitled set of four more Kim films), but an American release wasn't to come until 2013 when Criterion (who had been streaming the film for some time) included it as part of the lavish Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project. In the interim, a stylish though very differently focused remake by Sang-soo Im was released in South Korea, complete with more overt sexuality and a particularly lurid fiery climax. Even decades later, there's still nothing on earth quite like Kim's original film which still mercifully survives in all its sardonic, dangerous glory.
By Nathaniel Thompson