The Housemaid: A Perverted Progenitor to Parasite


Ben Jordan takes us back to 1960, uncovering a film pivotal to the development of South Korean cinema

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By Ben Jordan

In recent years few nations have been as prolific in their output of international media as South Korea. From Burning to Parasite, and the exemplary Decision to Leave, to the slew of K-dramas that currently pervade Netflix, there is no escaping the fact that this small East Asian nation has established itself on the world stage as a cultural force to be reckoned with. I can remember ten years ago, my only cultural reference point for South Korea was Gangnam Style: now, K-pop and K-drama are two of the most popular genres of music and television, and regularly rival media produced in the West. How time flies.

The release of Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid in 1960 was pivotal to the development of South Korean cinema, and in many respects the film was remarkably ahead of its time. For one, it depicts the consequences of adultery in a frank and often graphic manner, which was relatively revolutionary in a conservative country that felt the need to censor and restrict the film upon its release (more on that later). Even over in America audiences were only just seeing a flushing toilet on screen for the first time in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which is surprising when you consider how controversial a topic adultery still is today: or at least, it is controversial compared to the topic of toilets.

For all intents and purposes the protagonist of The Housemaid (Mr. Kim) lives an ideal life. He teaches piano, and has just moved into a new house with his wife and two children. In order to keep up with the upkeep, they hire a housemaid, who proceeds to seduce him. Poor Kim sleeps with her on a whim and soon finds his life irrevocably altered as a result of their adulterous fling. However, unlike Marion in Psycho, who is pursued by the psychotic and depraved Norman Bates, Mr. Kim only has himself to blame for what conspires in the household.

Throughout its runtime, The Housemaid distinguishes itself as a tense thriller, blending conventions of drama and horror into a chaotic chimera that is as intricate and suspenseful as some of the best scenes in Hitchcock’s filmography (the climax of Suspicion comes to mind). The film has Hitchcock’s fingerprints all over it. Like Psycho, it is also a domestic horror. Unlike the Universal Horror of the 1930s and 40s, there are no monsters in either film, and outside of the presence of theft and adultery, the lives of their characters are relatively trivial. Part of what sets both Psycho and The Housemaid apart is the way that they incorporate the guilt of their protagonist into their narrative. Both Marion and Mr. Kim transgress social norms, and though they both ultimately repent for their actions, they are still subject to punishment as a result. There is no clear antagonist in The Housemaid, though the titular housemaid is certainly a contender. Lee Eun-shim plays her in a devious performance that is sure to chill the spine and excite the senses. Like the ill-fated woman in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes, she consigns herself to her lot and acts out her role in a perverted play of her own creation.

Perceptive readers will have noticed by now that Mr. Kim is also the name of the protagonist of Parasite, and this is no coincidence. The Housemaid is a progenitor of Parasite, and Bong Joon-ho has gone on record stating it as one of his primary influences for the domestic drama. Fans of Park Chan-wook will also spot echoes of The Housemaid in some of his recent works, particularly his 2016 masterpiece The Handmaiden. Like in a Park Chan-wook film the viewer is sure to feel a sense of schadenfreude as they watch the pieces slot into place and fall apart in the microcosm of The Housemaid. However, while Park Chan-wook tends to provide his audience with resolution, the lacklustre conclusion of The Housemaid feels incredibly dated relative to the rest of the film, and typical of the period.

Back to another anecdote about Hitchcock. I studied Vertigo in school, and I can remember my teacher showing us an alternate ending favoured by the studio in which all of the loose threads that render the film so enigmatic and endearing are cleared up through an expositional news excerpt that plays over the ending of the film. Now believe me when I say that this was atrocious, but the ending of The Housemaid is arguably even worse than this. However, unlike in Vertigo, it ultimately has a certain brilliance to it. Those of you who are acquainted with Neil Breen will know what I mean when I say that it is ‘so bad it’s good’, but it is still a shame that an otherwise perfect film had to be tarnished by such a comically bad conclusion.

Despite the best efforts of the footage pasted on its end, The Housemaid is still an incredible thriller that is more than capable of holding its own against its disciples (Parasite included). I urge anyone who is even remotely interested in South Korean cinema to check it out.