Though they traditionally do, a remake needn’t stem from a paucity of fresh ideas. Idealistically, it’s the chance to put an intensely personal stamp on familiar material, as a musician would do with a cover. The more wildly different the better, I say, which is why it’s so surprising that Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid—a remake of possibly the most beloved film in South Korean history—turns out to be massively disappointing, while at the same time being violently unfaithful.
A hothouse psychodrama that goes to some very unclean places, Kim Ki-young’s original, made in 1960, tells of a family undone by the titular help, who turns out to be a sexual predator in a manner that predates (and bests) Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. That’s the plot of the remake, too, with two significant change-ups: The family is very, very wealthy and also, not coincidentally, the villains. Jeon Do-yeon, who deservedly won every award on the planet for her harrowing work in Secret Sunshine, plays the now victimized maid, who is here seduced by the callous paterfamilias (Lee Jung-jae), knocked up and then ordered to abort the lovechild.
The new version arrives at a faintly similar endpoint, but the message is completely different, not to mention inferior. In the original, neither side comes out well, but its sympathies mostly lie with the family beset upon by a deranged fatale. Jeon’s maid walks on water, while the family she serves are uniformly heartless and cruel, poisoning her tea when she refuses to have an abortion.
Im Sang-soo is a hugely talented filmmaker—A Good Lawyer’s Wife and The President’s Last Bang are both highlights of modern South Korean cinema—and he gives his Housemaid a lurid draw that is its minor saving grace. But its evisceration of the bourgeois is familiar and easy, and, more importantly, far less fun. The original may be borderline questionable in its classism, but better rude than blandly comforting.