Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (하녀) Remastered (1960)

When I reviewed the digitally restored print of The Housemaid at last year’s Pusan International Film Festival, I asserted that, when Kim Ki-young’s classic was released on video, it would be one of the most cherished DVDs of the year. Having seen the new Korean region-free transfer, I’ve had to temper my enthusiasm somewhat, though the film still gets the highest possible recommendation. The following is a reprint of that review, along with notes on the Blue Kino DVD.

A tale of sexual obsession without precedent in the history of cinema, The Housemaid, Kim Ki-young’s neglected masterpiece, fairly crackles with blistering intensity, provoking a sensation of horror mingled with delight. A half-century has not diminished the shock-value of the film, which rewarded the viewer with more genuine thrills than Japanese horror filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto’s half-baked ghost story that also featured in the festival lineup. Stylish direction and caustic wit raise this noirish thriller to the top of the pack.

Dong-sik (Kim Jin-kyu), a middle-aged music instructor struggling to provide for his very pregnant wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) and two small children, unwittingly threatens the domestic tranquility of his home when he hires a mysterious chain-smoking young woman (Lee Eun-shim) to help around the house. Needless to say, steaming rice and pickling kimchi aren’t the duties at which the housekeeper excels, who will stop at nothing to get inside her employer’s pants. A no-holds-barred war of the sexes ensues, with the clueless husband caught in the middle, and the (refreshingly unendearing) children as pawns. A twisted cautionary tale of marital infidelity that may appeal more to fans of Masumura than to those for whom Tokyo-ga is the pinnacle of cinematographic art, a newly-remastered print salvages this classic of Korean cinema from undeserved obscurity, allowing for a fresh reappraisal of Kim’s art.

Like Masumura, with whom he shares a certain spiritual affinity, Kim’s career followed a similar trajectory—from the technical mastery, youthful vigor and keen powers of observation of his early years and the experiments with color in the 1970s—to the tawdriness of his maturity that all too often descended into mere camp. Yet it is by these latter that he has come to be known—to the extent that he is known at all—to a handful of festival goers and cult film fans. Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon and Bong Joon-ho are just a few of of the younger generation of filmmakers upon whom Kim’s legacy has left its imprint.

The common bourgeois household was for Kim a microcosm of the world, which in the aftermath of the Korean War was characterized by rapid urbanisation, exponential population growth, pollution and widespread poverty. The encroachment of Western culture and materialism threatened traditional Korean values. Women were increasingly entering the workforce, while many of the poor ended up in bars, massage parlors and brothels. Kim transformed this chaotic world into celluloid in a way that has been described as surrealist, though the director disavowed any influence of the movement that swept the world in the wake of World War I. From the unsettling (and maddeningly long) game of cat’s cradle that opens the film, to the ubiquitous stairwell, to the grotesquely molded stucco walls of the house, Kim created a setting that was at once familiar and foreboding. The sliding glass door that joins the housemaid’s bedroom to the music room becomes a window through which the spectator becomes a sort of voyeur. Kim, who founded the National University Theater in 1949, and who knew a thing or two about stagecraft, designed the sets and props himself, as well as supervising the lighting.

Eschewing the prevailing realism and humanistic trappings of his peers, tinged with more than a whiff of nostalgia, Kim pursued a boldly expressionistic approach that transcended conventional morality, where raw human passions are laid bare and quaint notions of romantic love are put to rest. Perhaps this is nowhere better illustrated than in comparing the female characters in Han Hyung-mo’s films—by turns adventurous, headstrong and idealistic—to those of Kim’s—manipulative, libidinous and cannabilistic. It is equally impossible to imagine one of Han’s characters drugging her husband and having him undergo a vasectomy (The Insect Woman, 1972), or performing necrophilia on the corpse of her lover (Iodo, 1977), as Kim’s heroines do.

At the screening I attended, the presenter asked for the audience’s understanding, as restorers were still at work removing the burned-in handwritten English subtitles on two of the reels, efforts that will continue until the end of the year. He needn’t have apologized. The digital restoration, a joint venture of the Korean Foundation of Film Archives and the World Cinema Foundation (founded by Martin Scorsese) to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the maverick director’s untimely death in a house fire, rivalled and even surpassed that of any I’d ever seen. The virtually flawless print was, except for the two aforementioned recalcitrant reels, gorgeously luminous, with jet blacks and velvety greys, enabling viewers to marvel at cinematographer Kim Deok-jin’s incomparably beautiful lensing. The legible subtitles were generally free of grammatical errors.

A few months ago, we ran an effusive review of the Kim Ki-young Collection, a DVD compilation (rushed to retailers’ shelves to coincide with a retrospective in Seoul this summer) that we called the most significant release of the year (to which readers may now add Fantom Korea’s Independent Film Collection). We can now confidently assert that, when it becomes available early next year, The Housemaid will be one of the most prized releases of 2009.

Credits
Kim Ki-young, director
Kim Deok-jin, cinematographer
Lee Eun-shim (housemaid)
Kim Jin-kyu (Dong-sik)
Ju Jeung-nyeo (Dong-sik’s wife)
Um Aeng-ran (Cho Kyung-hee)

Notes on the DVD
Aside from the two problematic reels mentioned above, the digitally remastered image looks very pleasing, considering that the original is fifty years old. Contrast is good, and there are few blemishes, though some scenes appear somewhat bright and shimmering could be detected from time to time in background details, such as the stucco walls of the house. Unlike the stylized font used in the prints that circulated on the festival circuit and which appear in the video streaming over at The Auteurs, the subs on the DVD are standard typeface. The casual banter between Kim Young-jin and Bong Joon-ho on the commentary track and Lee Yeon-ho’s essay in the booklet add little to our appreciation of the film. The stills gallery however is beautifully presented and is well worth a look. It is to be hoped that Criterion will deem The Housemaid worthy of the treatment given to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. In the meantime, the Korean release is acceptable and very reasonably priced.

DVD Details
The all-region NTSC disc is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions (1.53:1) and is provided with removable Korean, English, French and Japanese subtitles. The DVD comes housed in an attractive cardboard slipcase and includes a 40-page bilingual booklet with a biography, filmography, excerpts from contemporary reviews of the film, an essay by film critic Lee Yeon-ho and notes on the restoration by Kim Ki-ho, researcher at the Film Conservatory Center of KOFA. Special features include a commentary track by film critic Kim Young-jin and Bong Joon-ho, a before and after restoration image comparison, and a stills gallery.

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Kim Ki-young (김기영) Collection

This month, Taewon Entertainment, under the auspices of the Korean Film Archive, has released a boxset of four films by legendary director Kim Ki-young. It has been over a decade since the 2nd Pusan International Film Festival hosted the first major retrospective of the director’s work, leading to requests from festivals the world over to do the same. In 1998, a retrospective was held at the Berlin International Film Festival, and more recently, there have been screenings at the Cinémathèque Française, in San Fransisco and New York, as well as last month at the Korean Film Council in Seoul. These events created expectations that a release on DVD would be forthcoming. Which prompts the question: was it worth the wait?

To begin with, we are treated to only four of the 23 surviving films, and those four prints have more than their fair share of fading, scratches and dust specks. One film is even missing a couple of reels. Most of the films and supplements are plagued with faulty English subtitles. Furthermore, The Housemaid (하녀, 1960), the most eagerly anticipated title, is not included in this set (it will be released separately). So just why must you own this set?

Because Kim Ki-young was without a doubt one of the most distinctive filmmakers working not only in Korea, but in the world. The director, who seems to have developed a fondness for B-films in the 1970s, was not averse to to mixing genres, and his stories are often a curious blend of mystery, horror, supernatural, melodrama and exploitation. It should come as no surprise that in stories in which rape, murder, human sacrifice (and mice) figure prominently, extreme camerawork was called for, and it is there in spades: colored gels, intentional blurring, rapid pans and zooms, sudden close-ups, wacky camera angles and lurid color, much to the delight of fans everywhere.

Quite unlike his contemporaries, Kim presents a world in chaos, peopled by predatory females, cowardly males driven by the basest of impulses, where unquestioned patriarchal authority no longer exists. Sexual politics is what interests him most. All this might be heavy going were it not for the abundant flourishes of brazen humor that add spice to the proceedings, such as when a woman justifies her husband’s non-consensual vasectomy, invoking the “Family Planning Act” (The Insect Woman, 1972). When asked what audience he had in mind when making these subversive and often shocking films, Kim responded that they were made for women, as housewives represented the bulk of filmgoers.

What is baffling is that these movies were made under the most unfavorable circumstances imaginable, during the repressive military dictatorship of Park Chun-hee, when everything from the rearing of children to the workplace was highly regimented. On top of which, in spite of the reclusive director’s utter disregard for commercial considerations, his pictures continued to achieve box-office success well into the 1970s, and went on to capture several awards. What is perhaps even more remarkable, considering the bizarre nature of his films, is that by all accounts, the director led a relatively stable life: he grew up in a loving home, studied dentistry at Seoul National University, married a classmate and remained faithful until their untimely death in a house fire in 1998.

Goryeojang (고려장, 1963)
The earliest film in the collection, Goryeojang features superb B&W lensing and outstanding performances. A woman arrives with her sole surviving son (Guryong) to a village in order to marry a man with ten sons by four previous marriages (yes, I’m not making this up!). The village is beset by recurring famines and has an unfortunate tradition of sending its elderly to the Sacred Peak to die (apparently, abstinence was not an option). The village shaman, scorned by the groom, places a curse on his ten sons. Shortly after their wedding, the sons play a cruel trick on Guryong and he is maimed for life. The woman leaves her husband to live with her son on a plot of land he has given her. The years go by, and the bitter rivalry between the ten sons intensifies when they learn of Guryong’s impending wedding. Shortly after his wedding, tragedy strikes and he is alone again with his aging mother. Many more years pass when a prolonged drought pits the brothers, who own the sole well in the village, against Guryong, who has been using his supply of food to extort land from all the villagers.

Persons with disablities appear to have been a recurring the motif in Kim’s oeuvre, stemming perhaps from his experience as a filmmaker for the USIS during the Korean War, where he must have witnessed many such casualties. In this film, he handles them with a refreshing realism and lack of affectation. The sets and makeup are spectacular, as is the set of the Sacred Peak that Kim reserves until toward the film’s breathtaking finale. The adult Guryong is performed by Kim Jin-kyu, who also starred in some of Shin Sang-ok’s finest movies and Jeon Young-sun, the saccharine daughter in Mother and Guest, also has a small but affecting role.

Two reels of film are lost and during seventeen minutes of the movie there is no image, only the soundtrack. The dialogue and missing scenes are provided in the accompanying booklet. The English subtitles on this film are excellent.

The Insect Woman (충녀, 1972)
Myung-ja (Yun Yeo-jong), a schoolgirl traumatized by the loss of her “father”, is coerced by her mother into working as a barmaid in order to help put her older brother through college. The inexperienced girl falls into the hands of the shrewd proprieter and madam (Park Jeong-ja). At the club, Myung-ja is introduced to Mr. Kim ( Nam Gung-won), a customer suffering from impotency and henpecked by a domineering wife. When the middle-aged man consents to make the teenager his mistress, a vicious and often bitingly humorous battles ensues between the two women. Not since the Japanese Angel Guts series have I seen a film as audacious, inventive and perverse as this one, with its frank portrayal of the cannibalistic relations between the sexes. Perhaps the film’s most famous image is that of the sex scene on a glass floor covered with colored candies. Yoon is wonderful as the feisty Myung-ja, as is Nam Gung-won as the fumbling Mr. Kim.

Of the four films included in the set, this transfer suffers the most from every imaginable sort of damage—fading, dirt, scratches and shifting color balance—in addition to the added distraction of burned-in Spanish subtitles.

Promise of the Flesh (육체의 약속, 1975)
This story is a remake of Lee Man-hee’s Late Autumn, which no longer exists. When we first encounter Hyo-soon (Kim Ji-mi), she is boarding the train for her hometown to meet the only man she has ever loved, a meeting we are told will never take place. Through flashbacks, we learn that while serving time in prison for unpremeditated murder, Hyo-soon was allowed by a compassionate parole officer (Park Jeong-ja) to make the very same journey several years earlier.

Along the way, the two women are greeted by a young man (Lee Jeong-gil) who offers them a lunch box from the train station, a gesture that would later hold great significance for Hyo-soon. The woman had until then experienced nothing but grief at the hands of men, having been raped several times. Her loss of faith in humanity, compounded by the loss of her mother, left her with little reason to live, and she had already made repeated attempts to take her own life. The chance meeting of the young man restored her will to live, and the two lovers vowed to meet again after her release from prison in two years.

The haunting theme song and the uncharacteristic use of voice-over convey Hyo-soon’s longing and contribute to the air of melancholy that permeates this, the most subjective and intensely personal film in the collection. Long stretches of time pass on the train without any dialogue, punctuated only by the sound of the train rolling along the tracks. The little details of ordinary life: a coke bottle rolling along the floor, the parole officer feeding pink candies to her prisoner, the young man blowing cigarette smoke rings to amuse the women—acquire an added gravity as they are recalled in flashbacks. The frantic attempts by the couple to embrace one another through a prison wall, efforts thwarted by the parole officer and several policemen, make a vivid impression, and Park Jin-pyo made use of this scene in You Are My Sunshine (너는 내 운명, 2005). The print shows the effects of age and is covered with dust specks. The English subtitles are awkward, with many grammatical errors.

Ieodo (이어도, 1977)
What begins as a press junket for a new hotel on Jeju Island to be named after the mythical island of the film’s title turns into a supernatural murder mystery when one of the journalists (Choi Yoon-seok) aboard the ship disappears overnight after a quarrel with Seonwoo Hyun (Kim Jeong-cheol), the mastermind behind the promotional event. In order to clear his name of any suspicion of wrongdoing, Seonwoo Hyun, together with the reporter’s boss (Park Am) head for Parang island, inhabited only by a population of aging sex-starved female divers. The blend of mystery, supernatural, pseudo-science and graphic sexual imagery likening sex to the mating of insects recalls the tales of Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo. The camera takes full advantage of the beauty of the ocean, the island’s jagged coastline and actress Lee Hwa-si’s stunning features. Toss in an exuberant sexually-charged shamanistic ritual (performed by Park Jeong-ja) and a shocking scene of necrophilia, and it adds up to an experience you won’t soon forget. The subtitles are frustratingly bad and the faded print has loads of dust specks, but the colors are more saturated than those of the other films in the set.

Bonus Material

Disc One: Goryeojang
Commentary by Lee Yeon-ho (film critic) and Kim Dae-seung (director, Blood Rain)
Directors on Kim Ki-young (Kim Hong-joon, 2006) 48 min.

The list of 22 directors who pay tribute to Kim Ki-young on this featurette reads like a who’s who of some of Chungmuro’s brightest young filmmakers. Here’s the rundown: Kim Gok, Kim Dae-seung, Kim Sun, Kim Ji-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, Jang Jun-hwan, Jung Yoon-chul and Jung Ji-woo.

The prevailing sentiment is that of an accumulation of lost opportunities: regret that the Kim Ki-young did not live to complete what was to have been his ‘comeback’ film, Diabolical Woman; regret at not having had the occasion to speak with the director, or in the case of Bong Joon-ho, not realizing at the time he was filming The Host that one of his actresses had actually worked alongside Kim. Some of them acknowledged their indebtedness to the director, including Kim Ji-woon and Park Jin-pyo, both of whom adapted scenes of his for use in their own films. In addition to scenes from films included in the set, are clips from numerous other of Kim’s films from the 70s and 80s, as well as from The Housemaid. The directors are nicely photographed, presumably in their studio offices. Special mention must be made of the grammatically correct, idiomatic English subtitles, the best of the set.

Disc Two: The Insect Woman
Commentary by Kim Young-jin (film critic) and Bong Joon-ho (director, The Host)
Kim Ki-young on Kim Ki-young (1997) 35 minutes

This featurette, made on the occasion of the retrospective at the 2nd Pusan International Film Festival, was shot in the director’s home and is divided into eight themes:

I) Reflection of Contemporary Images: Kim Ki-young’s Filmmaking
II) To Hate Ideas and Ideology
III) Cult Film? To Show the Truth
IV) Main Theme: Women and Family
V) To Anticipate Women Dominating Society
VI) Criticisms on the Completion Quality of His Latter Films and His Answer
VII) Depth, Kim Ki-young’s Space Design
VIII) Critical Interest in Kim Ki-young’s Films

Kim talks about the influence Greek plays and Ibsen had on his scriptwriting; his dislike of ‘ism’s’ and ideologies; and his dislike of clear-cut endings, among many other things. Kim seems relaxed in the comfort of his home, taking puffs on his pipe as he delivers his answers, which he appears to be reading from a prepared manuscript.

Disc Three: Promise of the Flesh
Commentary by Chung Sung-il (film critic)
Director Kim Ki-young Special Documentary (52 minutes)

This documentary was made on the occasion of the retrospective of the director’s work at the 2nd Pusan International Film Festival. Director Kim was accompanied by cinematographer Jeong Il-seong and actress Park Jeong-ja at the press conference. The room was practically empty. Clearly choked up and eyes welling with tears, Jeong said that he felt sorry that only one director deigned to attend Kim’s press conference. Know who that was? Hint: he just completed his hundredth film last year.

After a screening of The Housemaid, Kim tells the audience that filmmaking was his hobby, and that he was an amateur director, by which he meant that he was completely self-taught and had no business sense whatsoever. He went on to say that it was thanks to the support of his wife, who produced his films, that he was able to pursue his filmmaking career. It was when as many as 300 films and 1000 videos a year began to inundate the market that Kim discontinued making movies. In 1997, he said, Koreans, maybe sick of watching American films, were starting to watch Korean films again. This documentary also contains the same footage found on Kim Ki-young on Kim Ki-young.

Disc Four: Ieodo
Commentary by Kim Young-jin (film critic) and Oh Seung-wuk (director, Kilimanjaro, 2000)

Final Thoughts
This handsomely packaged set is the most significant Korean release since last year’s Shin Sang-ok Collection, and both belong in any filmlover’s collection. While one can gripe about the condition of the prints and the poor English subtitling, the selection is a fine one, and opinions are likely to be strongly divided over which film is best. My own favorite? Why, Goryeojang, of course! In the meanwhile, The Housemaid, which screened at Cannes in May, is undergoing restoration by the World Cinema Foundation and will hopefully be released on DVD sometime early next year.

DVD Details
All four discs are NTSC, all-region and anamorphically enhanced for widescreen television.
English, Korean and Japanese subtitles on feature films, bonus materials and commentary tracks.
An 87 page bilingual booklet that includes the missing scenes and dialogue from Goryeojang.