Understanding Korean Cinema: Yuki Kudoh Essay

The housemaid in 1960 First of all, I never seen Korean movie before this class, and I learned many things through the this course especially thorough the 3 movies which is the housemaid and Mother and a Guest. The Korean New Wave. To the uninitiated, that’s where it all began. In the late 1990’s, Korean cinema began to gain a worldwide reputation as a force to be reckoned with.

This “Korean New Wave”, or so it was called, saw the interest in (and popularity of) South Korean cinema grow exponentially in an incredibly short period of time and, in the ensuing years, names like Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Ji-woon began to be recognized as a new breed of filmmakers, the likes of which had rarely, if ever, been seen before, anywhere in the world. Of course, Korea’s filmmaking reputation and legacy continues to this day, however, much less widely known is the fact that many years before the coining of the phrase “Korean New Wave”, equally astonishing Korean films were already being made.

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The acclaim surrounding the 2010 film The Housemaid (directed by Im Sang-soo), has brought attention to one such cinematic gem – the original 1960 film of the same name, on which Im Sang-soo’s film is based – which was previously known only to ardent cinephiles: The Housemaid (1960, directed by Kim Ki-young) tells the story of Dong-sik (Kim Jinkyu), a piano teacher to female factory workers; his wife (Ju Jeung-ryu), a housewife; and their two young children.

Having recently moved into a newly built, two-story house in the suburbs, the family finds that Dong-sik’s job is no longer sufficient to pay the ever-increasing bills, and so his wife begins taking in sewing work to supplement their income. Subsequently collapsing from overwork, she and her husband grudgingly decide that they have little option but to take on a maid to help with the household chores and one of Dong-sik’s students is entrusted with the task of finding a suitable candidate.

However, the woman she finds for the job (her current flatmate) is a chain-smoking, sexual predator whose prying and self-serving nature soon presents her with a too good to miss opportunity to, almost, blackmail Dong-sik (combined with physically forcing herself on him) into an extra-marital affair. When both the maid and Dong-sik’s wife fall pregnant, a battle of wills begins between the two women, and Dong-sik finds himself caught squarely in the middle, desperate to hide his dirty laundry from the outside world and return stability to his family home.

In the years immediately subsequent to the Korean War, an increasing Americanization began to take place in Korea, with a greater importance being placed on the trappings of wealth, and success (and/or the appearance of being successful) began to become something to be sought and aspired to. The roles of women in society also began to hange as a direct result, with many beginning to work for the first time in their lives, and director Kim Ki-young uses both of these changes in society, throughout The Housemaid, to critique the shift away from Confucianism to much less morally based Western ideals – implying that those changes were largely to blame for the disintegration of both the family in the film and family in the society-based sense.

In the early stages of the film, a rat is repeatedly seen scurrying around within Dong-sik’s home, trying to survive and escape. Clearly an analogy to the family itself, this and the repeated filming of scenes from outside the house, looking in through framed windows, gives an increasing feeling of watching rats in a cage, with the house’s central staircase adding to this further by providing both a focal point to proceedings and essentially performing a similar role to a caged pet’s play wheel.

Shortly after taking up her new job, the housemaid kills the aforementioned rodent, in the kitchen, with her bare hands – subsequently being told that she should have, instead, used rat poison – and it can’t be denied that the rat’s fate directly mirrors the outcome for the family unit, once again at the hands of the housemaid. Note should also be made of the opening credits, which play over a scene showing the family’s two children playing a game of Cat’s Cradle with a length of string.

As their game builds in speed, the patterns they create become increasingly complex and twisted, as does the tangled web weaved by the main characters themselves. Cinematically, The Housemaid is deeply claustrophobic, both visually and in terms of plot, increasing in tension as the story darkens, to an almost uncomfortable level. Characters are repeatedly framed with nowhere to escape to, closed in both by physical frames within the house and by the camera frame itself, with the viewpoint routinely moving to keep them “trapped” wherever they are.

This technique will be fairly well known to any cinema fan, but its appearance in a film made at a time when Kim Ki-young’s contemporaries were mainly known for melodramas filmed using wide (mainly static) shots, makes its use here even more extraordinary. Also peppered within this dark morality tale are many nuanced moments of humour, and the influence this film has had on some of today’s Korean filmmakers (most notably Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, who have both cited it as a major influence) is hard to ignore.

Overall, the directing could easily be compared to Hitchcock works from the same era one scene in particular, involving a glass of water, brings to mind a similar scene in ‘Suspicion’ (1941), albeit minus the eerie glow at the bottom of the water/wine glass. However, where The Housemaid steps away from Hitchcock is in the level of sexuality portrayed. The lasciviousness shown by several of the characters takes, pretty much, centre stage from the very eginning of the film right through to, almost, the conclusion and, even today, the levels alluded to feel in no way reigned in or dated – especially note-worthy considering that this film was made fifty years ago. At the time of The Housemaid’s original release, it is claimed that married women were storming out of cinema screenings or yelling abuse at the character of the housemaid on screen and, with the intensity of emotions portrayed, and the levels of immorality contained within the film, that really isn’t hard to believe.

Mother and a Guest One of four films Shin Sang-ok released in 1961 (the others were Seong Chun-hyang, Prince Yeonsan, and Evergreen Tree), Mother and a Guest remains one of his most celebrated and enduring films. Flush from the success of Seong Chun-hyang, Shin’s big-budget adaptation of the classic pansori tale that was a massive box-office hit, he decided to embark on a more intimate, small-scale project, and Mother and a Guest, an adaptation of a beloved short novel by Joo Yo-seob, scripted by Im Hee-jae (who also wrote the screenplay for Seong Chun-hyang), perfectly fit the bill.

A potent melodrama revolving around the perennial conflict between traditionalist and modern values, the film centers on the titular mother, a young widow (portrayed by the luminous Choi Eun-hee, Shin’s wife and frequent star) whose largely selfimposed moral strictures are upended by the arrival of houseguest Mr. Han (Kim Jin-kyu, a popular actor of the time who also appeared in several of Shin’s films), a friend of her brother-inlaw who awakens desires in the widow she thought were long dead, or perhaps never experienced.

This slowly evolving love story is refracted through the perspective of the widow’s six year-old daughter Ok-hee (Jeong Young-seon), an adorable moppet who is one of the most endearing characters of her kind ever portrayed on film. She introduces herself and her family at the beginning of the film and provides a running voiceover throughout. This aspect of the story is a carryover from the original novel, which is also narrated by this character.

In fact, the original cut of Mother and a Guest was adapted very faithfully from the source material. However, Shin ran into a problem when this version resulted in a running time barely longer than an hour, which was considered too short for release. As a solution, Shin and Im added a subplot involving a relationship between the widow’s domestic servant (Do Geum-bong, another frequent Shin star) and an egg vendor (Kim Hee-gab), which serves as a comic counterpoint to the melodramatic main plot.

Other elements were added that broke with the young daughter’s point of view, such as a key scene between the widow and a fortuneteller (Heo Jang-kang), and a brief scene in which the widow poses in front of a mirror wearing a man’s hat. Mother and a Guest, much like many of Shin’s other films, brilliantly combines a seemingly self-effacing and invisible style derived from classic Hollywood montage with complex and nuanced characterizations and visual parallels and contrasts that enhance this deceptively simple tale.

The central heroine, as embodied by Choi Eun-hee, functions as the selfsacrificing, traditional woman common to Korean melodramas of the time, which was a particular specialty of Choi, who played this sort of woman in many films, for Shin and other directors. In this film, however, she goes far beyond this typical characterization to convey much deeper shades to this portrayal. One example is the scene in which she parades before the mirror wearing Mr. Han’s hat, after she chases her maid out of his room.

She takes advantage of this brief private time to display a saucy, irreverent and sexy side to herself, free – however briefly – from society’s (and her own) constraints on behavior, expressed visually by wearing part of a man’s clothing. Even her own insistence on wearing the hairstyle and dress of a married woman even though she is a widow becomes less a capitulation to patriarchal, Confucian standards than an expression of her incredibly strong will – there is much evidence in the film that others see the mother, as well as the other inhabitants of the “widow’s house” (so called because all he women, including the maid and the mother-in-law, are all widows), as somewhat peculiar and behind the times. The rigidly moralistic beliefs of both the mother and her mother-in-law, which make it impossible for the mother to fully express the love she clearly feels for her boarder, are portrayed in the film as a function of class. While the widow and the houseguest are kept strictly separated through most of the film (one exception is a scene in which Mr.

Han holds a sick Ok-hee in his arms while her mother sits beside him), the maid and the egg vendor are much freer to act on their attraction to one another, going all the way sexually (though of course, screen standards being what they were in Korea at the time, this happens off-screen) after a very funny scene in which the egg vendor cures the maid’s indigestion with his “medicine hands” and then proceeds to use those hands for more carnal purposes, leading to the maid’s pregnancy.

Mother and a Guest, which Shin did not consider to be his best film is a charming, lyrical work whose delicate beauty unfolds with each viewing. It is one of the great classic works of Korean cinema, as well as world cinema.

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