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Exclusive: The Housemaid Director Im Sang-Soo

The creepy thriller about rich people & their servants

Thrillers can take all sorts of paths to burn their way into a moviegoer’s mind, sometimes involving thing we deal with every day, but other times, dealing with situations we can only imagine. The latter is the case with The Housemaid, Im Sang-Soo’s reworking of a classic Korean thriller of the same name from 1960 into the story of a poor, young woman (Jeon Do-youn) is put through a horrible ordeal by the rich people who hire her as their nanny. This isn’t necessarily a scary movie as much as one that’s just so creepy, not only due to the sexual advances the master of the house makes on the new nanny, but also what his conniving wife and mother do in order to make her life hell when they learn she’s become pregnant.

Previously, Director Im helmed the political dark comedy The President’s Last Bang, about the assassination of a political figure at a time when Americans weren’t exactly thrilled wth their own President. The Housemaid uses similarly dark socio-political humor to explore the relationship with rich people and their servants and what the former will do in order to cover up their misdeeds, especially when they have enough money to throw at every problem that arises. It may not sound like much in the scares department, but the filmmaker was clearly influenced by Hitchcock and one of the very first “creepy kid” horror movies The Omen and one expects the inevitable American remake will go even further into that realm. Even so, Im’s film is pretty sick, especially a climactic twist that few will see coming.

ShockTillYouDrop.com sat down with the Korean filmmaker last September when he was in New York to present his film as part of the MOMA’s “Korean Film Today” program.

ShockTIllYouDrop: I was surprised that the movie wasn’t included in the New York Film Festival this year, but then I realized that some of the ideas in the movie might insult the Lincoln Center patrons who have maids.

Im Sang-soo:
There’s other two other Korean films in that film festival right now, and Richard Peña probably thought that having three is probably too many.

Shock: Those other two are probably safer as well. I’m sure you know that Hollywood loves remaking Korean films and Asian films, so why did you decide to go back and remake a Korean film in Korean?

Im:
In truth, this was a project that was already organized by producer and he was already seeking other directors to do this before me, and those didn’t work out. It came to my attention, and what I saw in this and the reason I agreed to do it, was because in 2010, in our day and age, many people have put aside the fact that class issues are relevant anymore, that they’re not relevant anymore and we don’t concern ourselves with that. But what I thought was that it was a good chance for me to tackle those issues and say that, “No, It’s still in our mind,” and this way, I can deal with that issue a bit more directly with this material.

Shock: The original movie was in 1960, which is 50 years ago, right after the war in fact. Had anything changed for the better in those class issues or did you feel they had gotten worse? What did you see as the biggest differences in the time periods?

Im:
Many people have said that this is a remake of the history film, but I would say that it’s very much a completely different film from the original. Like you said, 50 years have time has passed since the original now, but back then, it was a time when the middle class in Korea was just starting to emerge. It didn’t exist before and the family we see in that older film was a class of people that didn’t exist before and they were just starting to come into a little bit of wealth. Rural kids, younger men and women, were coming up from the countryside to urbanize Seoul to work for cheaper wages and they were working as housemaids and other stuff like that. This is the context that the first film was in, and in that film, we see an unfaithful husband who has a sexual relationship and feels so much guilt and so much fear of being exposed about his acts. In this film, what’s completely different is we see a very super-rich family, a man who has this sexual relationship, but feels no remorse, feels no fear of consequences of his actions. I think that is one of the biggest differences of the film.

Shock: I assume this is also a lot darker than the original movie, because it gets pretty dark at times. It’s kind of a genre film, but it doesn’t go that far, because every thing could be happening and it’s very much based in reality. There’s nothing supernatural or anything like that. Could you talk about how far you wanted to go into those realms of genre?

Im:
Like you said, what I was trying to portray in this film was something that was very realistic and that we would see in real lie. Obviously, there is many socio-economic and political things that are underlying in the film, but I think the driving force of the film is a Hitchcockian influence. Before tackling the film, I watched many of Hitchcock’s films, kind of studying the ways this would be possible. One of the other influences I was concerned with was Truffaut’s book called “Conversations with Hitchcock” and in that, they discuss the original nature of suspense. Those were the kinds of things that I was very much concerned with, and I was really concerned with driving the film with that kind of force, but also portraying it in a very realistic, suspenseful Hitchcockian way. This was probably one of the reasons why the film was sold in America fortunately.

Shock: You answered one of the questions I had about Western influences. I see a lot of Korean films, and I’m amazed because it seems like every Korean filmmaker is as good as one of our best filmmakers. Maybe I just don’t get to see the bad ones, but I also wondered if there may have been some influence from “The Omen,” because there were a couple scenes that seemed to be nods to them. Was that an influence on you or if maybe the original movie might have influenced that movie?

Im:
I could say that I specifically stole a specific scene from “The Omen.” Who was the director of “The Omen”?

Shock: Richard Donner, I believe.

Im:
“The Omen,” I don’t think is a regular genre film, but I think it’s an excellent film that goes beyond genre.

Shock: Oh, I agree. It’s one of my favorite films because of that.

Im:
So the Korean films that you’re enthralled with right now that are so excellent, many of these directors that many people outside of Korea are noticing nowadays are moreso influenced by American or European directors, probably a little moreso than our native historical Korean film directors. Another way I would explain my way would be that in America, the films are mainly dictated and controlled by the large studio sytems, whereas in Korea, as of yet still, directors have much more control over their work and are able to make their own films their way. I think that’s one of the main reasons why you might see the films as being better.

Shock: I want to ask about the cast because you have an amazing cast, which is basically five roles, and I wondered how you go about casting a film in Korea. There’s obviously a great pool of talent. Do you still have money people telling you, “Okay, you need to cast a big star” over there? How does it work as a filmmaker trying to cast the actors you think are best?

Im:
I would say of course, in a way, there is direction from above, the money saying there should be some person or some level of actor in these roles, especially with main role castings, there’s always some kind of push from the financial side of the equation looking for a certain star. As far as Jeon Do-yeon goes in this film, she was very important obviously, and for her role, before I even finished my own script, I told her I was doing this film and I told her to wait and not take on other projects, while the money people worked out the other issues. By the time the script was finished, they had already worked it all out and by her saying “yes,” it all kind of fell into place.

Shock: Had “Secret Sunshine” already come out at that time?

Im:
It was quite a while after it was already distributed.

Shock: One of the interesting things is that she seems to be having a relationship with her female co-worker and that she’s possibly a lesbian or bi-sexual, which I’m not sure if that’s considered controversial. Can you talk about the decision to have her be in a relationship with another woman while all this is going on at the house?

Im:
I have been asked similar questions like this asking to confirm whether I was implying that she was a lesbian or bi-sexual because of those scenes where she’s in that tight room with that bigger woman, but I think that question is not so important to me, but rather that what I was trying to convey in those scenes is that this is a person who is so very poor and so very alone, more importantly, in this world where she years for the touch of another person’s skin. She hasn’t been able to feel that sense for a long time. This is how desperately alone she feels. I think this is something that in a greater context is not limited just to Korea or that person but in a general sense to the world at large. There are many people who are feeling that same kind of desperate very lonely feeling and that’s the more important thing. This is something that not too many foreigners will be able to catch on, but the intonations and the accents of the larger woman is actually that she is most definitely a Chinese-Korean, and what’s interesting about that is that Jeon Do-yeon’s character is someone that hasn’t been able to connect basically with a person of her own race. That this is a person who is completely different, that she may have lived and grown up in Korea, but by race, she is a Chinese person. This is how alone she is. She hasn’t been able to connect with a person of that whole city of her own race. That is the kind of loneness

Shock: It’s just interesting she has an intimate connection with this woman and then she goes to the house and she falls mercy to these other women who are completely awful to her. I wasn’t sure if it was related or not. You mentioned the class system earlier and how a woman this poor and lonely would take a job like this and stick with it however bad it might get. Is this a very known thing that there’s that much sexual harassment of maids, something you might read about a lot in the news, or is this a very specific incident?

Im:
In Seoul, Korea, there’s obviously someone that lives with the family, doing the housemaid duties is not too common, it’s not something you see every day. There’s only a few people and they’d have to be super-rich. It’s something you see in America. There are very rich families who have live-in housemaids and things like that. I would say that it’s not a very common sight, but maybe it was a little more acceptable in historical times when larger families had housemaids that lived with them, but I think there’s always going to be a sexual tension in those kinds of situations.

Shock: If something like this really happened and it broke out and was exposed—because a lot of this is about keeping the story quiet—how would the Korean people react to it? Would they be completely shocked and outraged?

Im:
I would say that this is something that does happen and it’s something that’s somewhat real in society, but I think what’s important than whether this is happening or not is that in the film, the husband has an affair with the housemaid and I think the natural reaction to any kind of situation like this is that you show anger. The wife should be very angry and very vocal about it, I think that’s the natural way, but in the film, you see that the grandmother tells her daughter not to be angry and not to show her anger and not to show her discontent with the situation, that this grandmother is preventing her own daughter’s happiness because she wants her daughter to be in that kind of opulent lifestyle and to maintain that lifestyle by not vocalizing her obvious discontent with this. This is in turn making that daughter into a housemaid, pressing her down and making her into someone that doesn’t have a voice. I think in the film what’s happening is that many of these characters are themselves becoming much more like housemaids than the Jeon Do-yeon character is. Even though by occupation, she’s the housemaid, everyone else is the one actually acting and becoming more like a housemaid. By the end, we see Eun-yi cast-off her housemaid ways and make a statement, and by doing so, everyone else is implicated to be the housemaids where they aren’t able to do anything about it.

Shock: The older maid has a mantra “R.U.N.S.” (Short for “Revolting, ugly, nauseating, shameless”) which symbolizes the humiliating treatment of servants and it helps her get through her day. Is that an actual phrase that’s used in Korea and is it a fairly lliteral translation?

Im:
It actually is quite an accurate translation. The phrase that’s uttered in Korean is a phrase that was probably started thirty years ago, but it was a point of criticism and it was making fun of that society at the time. It is quite an accurate translation into English.

Shock: Any idea what you want to do next?

Im:
It was about two years ago that I spent some time in Paris preparing the project, but that was then and now, there’s talk that they want to remake this remake into an American remake, but nothing is solid in that regard yet. My immediate next project will be a Korean production, it’s kind of going to be an expanded version or telling of this story where it’s “The Housemaid,” plus more sex plus 8 murders. If this film were kind of a feminine story, this new film is going to be a much more masculine take on the subject matter.

The Housemaid opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, January 21.

Source: Edward Douglas