erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2011 posts

Wednesday February 23, 2011

Movie Review: “The Housemaid” (2010)


Im Sang-soo’s “The Housemaid” (2010) is based upon Kim Ki-young’s “The Housemaid” (1960), a classic Korean film that was only recently discovered by cineastes in the West. Both “Housemaids” are about the horror that results when a new maid has an affair with, and a pregnancy from, the man of the house; but there are two major differences in terms of story.

In the original, the family is middle-class. They’ve finally bought a home, which they’re fixing up, but the husband has to work two jobs and the wife takes in sewing. At the same time, they’re happy. It’s the housemaid, a sexually predatory femme fatale, who instigates the affair, and ultimately destroys both happiness and family. Basically: it’s how a singular, outside corruption destroys a collective, familial innocence. Meaning it’s a story as old as the Garden of Eden and as oft-told as “Fatal Attraction,” “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle,” and the tabloid exploits of Angelina Jolie.

In Im Sang-soo’s new version, the family is fabulously wealthy and powerful, and their home is vast, clean and cold, with an elongated fireplace that seems to produce no heat. The housemaid, Eun-Yi (Jeon Do-yeon), is an innocent, and it’s the husband, Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), who instigates the affair. Basically: it’s how a singular, outside innocence is destroyed by a collective, familial corruption. Meaning it has more in common with most westerns than it does with Kim Ki-young’s original.

The housemaid as outside malevolence who destroys a familial innocence (above, in the 1960 original), and as an outside innocent who is destroyed by familial malevolence (in the 2010 remake).

The new “Housemaid” begins in almost cinema verite fashion. On what looks like a Friday night in Seoul, an unnamed and unknown woman moves out on a four-story ledge as, below, vendors prepare food, girls frolic in a second-story danceteria, and couples wonder where to go for the evening. A minute later she jumps. It causes a minor stir but life, such as it is, goes on. One of the vendors, Eun-yi, with her friend, visits the scene of the crime: a chalk outline stained in blood. Is this what spurs her to improve her position and get the housemaid job? This reminder of the shortness of life? She doesn’t know it, but looking up to the height from which the woman jumped, she’s looking into her own future.

We’re introduced to the family piecemeal. Here’s the older housekeeper, Mrs. Cho (a glorious Yoon Yeo-jeong), who is herself so entitled she enters Eun-yi’s apartment without permission before hiring her. Here’s the young mother, Hae-ra (Woo Seo), with huge, swollen belly, doing pregnant yoga and reading picture books on Matisse. Here’s the young, stoic daughter, Nami (Ahn Seo-Hyun), acting less childlike and more knowing than Eun-yi, who dotes on her. Finally, here’s the father, Hoon, or Mr. Goh, arriving late, walking before two bowing associates, drinking his expensive red wines and playing his Beethoven sonatas.

Is there a correlation between the westernization of the Gohs and their corruption? Have they lost their Koreanness and thus their souls? Jean-Michel Frodon of Cahiers du cinéma compared the original director, Kim Ki-young, to Luis Buñuel. Is Im Sang-soo, in this regard, the Korean Olivier Assayas?

We know what’s going to happen, of course. We’ve seen the poster—Eun-yi crouched before a bathtub, all bare legs and apron, something breathless in her face—and we’ve read the synopsis, full of words like “erotic” and “steamy.” That’s what draws us in. That’s why we’re in the audience. But those adjectives are slightly misleading. At a mountain resort, yes, Mr. Goh enters the servant quarters with a bottle of wine, demands Eun-yi reveal her body, feels her up, demands and receives oral sex. But nothing is particularly “steamy.” This is a cold thriller. It’s filmed cold, its people are cold, they live in a cold mansion. Dark blues and steel dominate. The first words in the movie, in fact, are “It’s cold, where should we go?” Only the revenge at the end is served hot.

A question: If Eun-yi is truly innocent, why does she go along with the affair? Her own answer, to her friend, is compartmentalization. She tends to the Mrs. during the day and the Mr. during the evening. Mr. Goh, meanwhile, deals with any romantic thoughts she might mistakenly have by tucking a check into her shirt. I pay for this, too.

We also know the affair will blow up—badly. The question: Who will be ally to Eun-yi and who an enemy? Or is she surrounded by enemies?

Mrs. Cho is the wild card. Early on she seems as dismissive as the family; but then we get a great scene in the bathroom of the servant’s quarters. Eun-yi is on the toilet while Mrs. Cho, cigarette going, holds forth from the bathtub. She calls the job RUNS (Revolting, Ugly, Nauseating and Shameless), and counsels Eun-yi away from it:

“You get up in the morning and think about what you have to endure and [grimaces] it makes your gut hurt. But what can you do? Just breathe in deep and transform into a cold stone.”

Mrs. Cho already knows about the affair; and it’s while eyeing Eun-yi in the bathroom that she figures out she’s pregnant. What to do with this information? She goes to Ha-rae’s mother (Park Ji-young), even more beautiful than her daughter, who is full of distant, flutey compliments about Mrs. Cho’s son becoming a prosecutor, but who proves to be the most villainous element in the story. She knocks Eun-yi off a ladder, and watches her fall two stories to the cold, marble ground. She is never far from her daughter’s ear, into which, Lady Macbeth-like, she pours her calm, poisonous thoughts. “I should’ve pushed her from someplace higher and ended things,” she says matter-of-factly. It’s the matter-of-factness that’s scary.

Ha-Rae fixates on the affair and its various betrayals (“with a common maid,” etc.), but her mother sees the baby as the real problem. It gives Eun-yi power, makes her a rival, almost an equal, and they can’t abide that. Eventually they confront Eun-yi, who is now aware that she’s pregnant, and give her money for an abortion; but Hae-re, eyes opening, recalls the way Eun-yi talked baby-talk to her own swollen stomach, and figures Eun-yi will want the baby. The poisoned thoughts of her mother become literal poison, which she slips to Eun-yi, which induces a miscarriage. It happens in the bathtub. “No, don’t do this,” Eun-yi cries as she tries to hold it all together. “No, baby!” It’s a heartbreaking scene.

Now the family is through with her but she’s not through with them. “I can’t get it out of my head,” she says later. “What happened here. It’s so horrible.” So she does to them what they did to her. She creates an image so horrible they can never get it out of their heads.

“The Housemaid” is melodrama, and occasionally over-the-top, but it’s anchored by great performances, including Jeon, whose Eun-yi is, sweet, childlike, and slightly off throughout, and Yoon’s Mrs. Cho, whose stoic demeanor hides, not a secret smile for her employers, but a secret hatred. (Yoon, recently seen stealing the show in “The Actresses,” also played the lead in Kim Ki-young’s second housemaid film, “Woman on Fire,” in 1971.)

Woo, meanwhile, managages to coat Ha-Rae’s nastiest lines with a topping of sweetness. When she slaps Eun-yi for the affair without mentioning the affair, and Eun-yi apologizes for the affair without mentioning the affair, she comes back with a faux innocent, “For what?” She wants Eun-yi to say it. She can’t forgive Mrs. Cho, either, for going to the mother rather than her with the bad news, and for the rest of the movie wears her down. “Mrs. Cho,” she says in her dreamy, singsongy voice, “why are you chattering on late at night with that annoying voice of yours?”

Ultimately, for all its “erotic” and “steamy” qualities, this is a movie about class, and how the very rich are different than you and me—although Mrs. Cho would probably flip that cause-and-effect order. “Scary people,” she says at one point. “Probably why they’re so rich.”

The epilogue is a dreamy sequence right out of David Lynch, as the Gohs, seemingly mad, celebrate Nami’s birthday outside in the snow, with champagne, Hollywood art and English. No one speaks Korean. Their corruption is complete. They are homeless now.

Posted at 06:47 AM on Feb 23, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011   |   Permalink  
Tuesday January 18, 2011

Movie Review: “The Green Hornet” (2011)


The Green Hornet has always been the lamest of superheroes. He was created in 1936 by George W. Trendle, co-owner and managing partner of Detroit radio station WXYZ, as a modern update of Trendle’s previous creation, the Lone Ranger. Like the Ranger, the Hornet wore a mask, fought crime (often posing as a criminal himself), and relied upon a faithful companion: a Japanese valet named Kato, who became a Filipino valet after Pearl Harbor and a Korean valet for the 1940’s movie serials. The Hornet’s real identity, debonair newspaper published Britt Reid, was even posited as the grand nephew of John Reid, the Lone Ranger’s real identity.

I first came to know the character through syndicated re-runs of the 1966-67 TV series, starring Van Williams as The Green Hornet, and Bruce Lee as Kato, which was created in the wake of yet another successful series: the camp classic, “Batman.” This Hornet had a couple of things going for him. He rode in a cool, black Mustang; he looked cool in his black mask and fedora; his theme song, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” was cool, while his sidekick, Kato, wearing his own black mask and chauffeur’s cap, was way cool.

But even as kids we knew something was wrong: The Green Hornet didn’t do anything. Kato drove the car. Kato was the bad-ass in fights. Basically the Green Hornet was his own Robin. He was the superhero overshadowed by the sidekick.

Thus the obvious task before screenwriters Seth Rogen and Even Goldberg (“Pineapple Express”), director Michael Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), and Sony Pictures Entertainment: How to update this lame character for 2011 audiences?

Their answer? Make him lamer.

It’s not a bad answer, actually. They just don’t go far enough with it.

This Britt Reid (Rogen) is the spoiled son of a crusading newspaper publisher, James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), who dies from an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Brit is put in charge of “The Daily Sentinel” but he’s hardly read it. What has he done with his life? Not much. He likes to party with beautiful women. Who doesn’t? He likes beer. Ditto. He’s basically an everyman with gobs of money. He also likes a nice cappuccino in the morning with a leaf design in the foam. But the morning after his father’s funeral, the leaf is gone and the coffee’s shite, and after throwing a tantrum he learns that a servant named Kato (Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou), whom he fired the day before, always made his morning cappuccino. So he hires him back. That’s how they meet.

Kato, it turns out, is not just a master barista. He’s a martial arts master, a scientific master, a guy who redesigns the father’s black mustang with the material of shark tanks. Reid can barely keep up. “I was born in Shanghai,” Kato says. “Love Japan,” Reid responds. Not a bad in-joke for a movie that gives its Chinese character a Japanese name.

Their first night-time excursion is collegiate and Oedipal, and recalls an episode of “The Simpsons”: James Reid was buried next to a giant statue of himself; so the son, still fuming that daddy was considered a great man, cuts off the head of the statue. Then he witnesses an attack on a nice couple by a gang of cackling idiots. He confronts them and runs. They’re about to kill him. But Kato to the rescue.

Then the cops chase them from the scene. But Kato’s souped-up car to the rescue.

And we’re on. Britt has his grand idea to “pose like villains and act like heroes.” He also decides to be his own J. Jonah Jameson: He will turn this character who decapitated his father’s statue, seen on grainy, green footage, into a villain. And he will call him: The Green ... Bee!

Kato to the rescue again with a better name. The Green Hornet is born.

The two take on the L.A. underworld, run by a man named Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, in his first role, and it’s a thankless one, since winning best supporting actor for “Inglourious Basterds). Reid as the Green Hornet gets in a couple of blows now and then, but it’s mostly Kato, as fighter, or Kato, as designer of high-tech weapons and cars, who gets the work done. But Reid never seems to notice this. He still thinks he’s the hero. He’s as deluded as Ronnie Barnhart, Rogen’s character from “Observe and Report.” Is this the new Rogen role? The guy who’s scary in his delusions? The ostensible hero who isn’t really a hero?

At one point, Kato designs a gas gun but only makes one for Reid. When Reid questions him on this, Kato implies (rightly) that he doesn’t need one. Now it’s Reid who chafes under the idea (a correct one) that he’s the weaker half of the duo. So he promptly shows his worth by shooting himself in the face with the gas gun. He’s out for 11 days.

Should we look at their relationship symbolically—as a backdrop to geopolitics? The American is rich, talentless and stupid, but with a sense of privilege. The Chinese guy knows everything, can fight anyone, and can even make a damn good cappuccino, but he has to listen to the American. Who thinks he’s Japanese. No way the filmmakers weren’t aware of this dynamic.

A shame they didn’t press this theme. Instead, what breaks the two up is ... wait for it ... a girl, Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), a temp who becomes full-time secretary to Reid because she knows things like “how much trouble newspapers are in these days.” Both men make plays for her: Reid obviously and thus humorously; Kato subtly and thus creepily. She’s not interested in either.

There are grand, meaningless subplots. Was James Reid in the pocket of the corrupt local D.A. (David Harbour)? Will Kato accept a $1 million assignment to kill Britt Reid? Blah blah blah.

Reid’s stupidity is magnified through two laugh-out-loud bits. At a sushi bar with the corrupt D.A., we get a high-tech flashback of Reid piecing everything together. At which point the corrupt D.A. says something like, “I can see by the stupid look you’ve had on your face for the last five minutes that you’ve finally pieced everything together.” It recalls, like the decapitated statue, “The Simpsons,” specifically Homer.

At the same time, Reid manages to get the corrupt D.A.’s confession recorded, and he and Kato, reunited, are chased back to The Daily Sentinel, where Reid can upload the audio onto the Internet. The damage done to the building so he can perform this simple task is insane. But he’s doing it. As Kato holds off the bad guys, we get the traditional “Hollywood bar of upload,” with the hero saying, “C’mon, c’mon,” to technology he doesn’t understand. In the audience, I’m thinking, “How can they make this interesting? What can we get at the other end that’s unique?” Answer? A pop-up window: NO DATA RECORDED. “I’m so stupid!” Reid says, slapping himself in the forehead.

Unfortunately the movie fudges Reid’s Homer Simpson moments by allowing him Kato’s power at the end: In a moment of crisis, time slows down, and, boom boom, he is able to take care of the bad guys. What took Kato a lifetime of training, Reid simply stumbles into. It’s the American way.

Question: Is all of this simply humorous or truly subversive? I.e., are the filmmakers pandering to the audience (“Idiots like you can be heroes!”) or are they trying to slap sense into them (“Your hero is an idiot, Idiot!”)?

My hero of the film, anyway, doesn’t wear a mask. He’s Axford (Edward James Olmos), an editor at The Daily Sentinel, who, after James Reid dies, is forced to watch the newspaper he’s worked on for decades, and which is barely surviving as is, become the plaything of three people who know nothing of journalism: Reid, Kato and Lenore, who is suddenly holding forth at edit meetings as if she’s Ben Bradlee. He is made redundant. At this point he tries to set Reid straight, and begins: “I know you think my experience ain’t worth shit...” Truer words by the American workingman to his boss were never spoken.


Earlier incarnations: 1940 (left) and 1966. The updated version contains two homages to Bruce Lee, the 1966 Kato. Can you name them?

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Posted at 08:14 AM on Jan 18, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011   |   Permalink  
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