Hanyo / The Housemaid (dir. Kim Ki-young): a delirious melodrama critical of Western culture and Confucian traditions

Kim Ki-young, “Hanyo / The Housemaid” (1960)

Delirious and overwrought in its soap-opera melodrama, this cult classic of South Korean cinema works as a satire of consumerist culture when it clashes with traditional Korean Confucianist values and attitudes towards women in a society hit hard by Western culture and its material seductions. The film takes place in early 1950s South Korea when young women flock to the cities to find work in factories while their menfolk are fighting in the Korean War. In those days, people worked long hours in the factories and factory employers provided them with dormitories to sleep in, and organised recreations such as music and sports lessons in their free time. Dong-sik Kim (Jin-Kyu Kim) is a music teacher who teaches singing and piano to the young female factory workers, one of whom becomes infatuated with him. The young woman Kyung-hee Cho (Aeng-ran Eom) requests piano lessons from Dong-sik which he obliges as he needs the money to pay for a new two-storey house for his wife and two children. While Dong-sik gives Kyung-hee private piano tuition in the evenings, his wife (Jeung-nyeo Ju) takes in sewing to supplement the family income but this leaves her no time to do much housework. Dong-sik asks Kyung-hee if she knows of a housemaid who can help with the cooking and cleaning, and Kyung-hee presents Myung-sook (Eun-shim Lee) as a willing candidate. Myung-sook is given a room upstairs in the new house and starts her new job.

Before you know it, Myung-sook starts creating havoc in the household by banging on the piano at odd hours of the night, having a tryst with Dong-sik and falling pregnant, being pressured into a miscarriage by Mrs Kim by falling down the stairs, and blackmailing both Dong-sik and his wife by threatening to report them both to the police for causing the death of her unborn child. Jealous of Dong-Sik and his wife’s new baby, Myung-sook indirectly causes the death of one of their older children. Still, now that she has her revenge on Mrs Kim, Myung-sook isn’t at all satisfied and starts demanding that Dong-sik sleep with her. The entire family is paralysed by Myung-sook’s demands and behaviour, little of which Myung-sook herself can explain or understand. Eventually the rising tension must come to a breaking point and so it does in a tragic way.

Through Myung-sook’s actions, the film shows the ideal Confucian-style family to be a fragile entity indeed, but the Kims were already under stress as a result of their social ambitions and what those ambitions required them to do, so it is not difficult to see how an unstable young woman manages to break up this family unit and force its members to commit more sin and become degraded. The new house itself – a monstrous entity dominated, in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, by its staircase on which children trip each other and fall over, or adults try to strangle each other – not only reflects the Kims’ ambitions but by the end of the film is as much a burden and a demon to the family as it is their supposed pride and joy. The adult Kims are not very loyal to each other – Dong-sik succumbs quite quickly to Myung-sook’s blackmail, and his wife tries to bargain with her to the extent of agreeing to the maid’s demands – and their relationship is reflected in the children’s constant bullying of one another and their attempts to bully the maid. That Myung-sook’s blackmailing quickly uncovers vulnerabilities and weak points in the Kim family’s relationships perhaps illustrates a subversive examination of Confucian family values and how these affect women and encourage their oppression.

As the film continues, its plot becomes more unhinged and less realistic, moving into haunted Amityville horror house territory with the Kims trapped in their house by the maid, and everyone resorting to underhand methods like using rat poison in a desperate race to come out on top. The acting becomes more and more theatrical though the plot does become monotonous with the rat poison being brought out in several scenes throughout the film and a bit of slasher-flick horror coming late as well. Much dark humour is worked into the dialogue with characters revealing their true (and often rapacious) motivations through throwaway lines. The acting ranges from competent to overdone camp and (perhaps unusually for a Korean film of its time) the female characters are more strongly defined with deep and complex psychological motivations than the male characters.

As a psychological character study that’s also critical of the class-based nature of Korean society and the way it treated women, especially poor or vulnerable women, in the early 1960s, “Hanyo” turns out to be an unexpected dark comedy / noir thriller with elements of haunted-house horror.