Part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013).
“If the national cinema aesthetics of Korea are characterized by the thematic motifs of han (pent-up grief), mise-en-scenes of rural mountainous landscapes, and understated emotions that are frequently projected in the works of Shin Sang-ok and Im Kwon-Taek, Kim Ki-yong is a filmmaker who falls completely outside this framework.”
- Kyung Hyun Kim
Words like baroque, surrealistic, erotic and horror get bandied around a lot when talking about Kim Ki-young. Though his status as an auteur and place in the Korean cinema pantheon is secure there remains a lot to be discussed about his films. Within the realm of the revenge narrative his films are unique creations tapping into our fears about family and the cultural upheavals caused by modernity. Returning to the same themes, character archetypes, storylines and images, Kim was obsessed with placing impotent men, bratty children, scorned women and matriarchs under one roof and seeing the weak and the strong clash with one another. Although not as violent as a lot of the current Korean revenge, crime and horror pictures they are nonetheless emotionally jarring and claustrophobic.
The typical Kim Ki-young picture follows one of two scenarios. The first being a man, usually a teacher or composer, and his socially ambitious wife employing a young woman from the far outskirts of Seoul to become their new maid. Films like The Housemaid (1960), Woman of Fire (1971) and Woman of Fire ’82 conform to these conventions. The second most commonly used narrative in Kim’s oeuvre is that of an impotent man who’s failure in the bedroom as well as in business has left the man’s wife to take over the role of breadwinner. In the process of regaining his confidence he rapes and becomes involved with a young woman and their relationship soon exposes the fault lines in the man’s dysfunctional family. This general synopsis would probably make anyone new to Kim’s work automatically think of directors like Douglas Sirk and R.W. Fassbinder, two directors alongside Bunuel who really do get overused when talking about Kim’s pictures. Yet, visually and thematically Kim has far more in common with the Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura.
The Housemaid and the different incarnations of the Myeong-ja character in Woman of Fire, Insect Woman (1972), Woman of Fire ’82 and Carnivore (1985) wouldn’t feel out of place in Imamura’s own Insect Woman (1963), Vengeance Is Mine (1979) or The Profound Desire of the Gods (1968). As Donald Richie states, the traditional female archetype found in the films of Kenji Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse were put into situations to illustrate the cruelty that Japanese society inflicts on women. Imamura’s films depict ruthless females that are far more cunning than their male counterparts, not to mention the fact that they are all linked to a primal pre-modern form of sexuality; an apt description for the women found in Kim Ki-young’s films who aid in the Korean middle class reaching First World levels of prosperity all the while destroying the purity and tenuous bonds of home and family.
Reading through much of the literature on Kim’s oeuvre, specifically on the loose grouping of films labeled as the Hanyeo trilogy, many writers make a point to specifically categorize the housemaid and Myeong-ja characters as being femme fatales entrapping the husband and wrecking the safety of the nuclear family. Yet the moniker of femme fatale is far too simplistic a label since these young women hedge closer to being victims of circumstance rather than villainesses. While in the original Hanyeo the housemaid actively seduces the husband, the subsequent reimaginings have the young woman being raped and then, suffering from a case of Stockholm syndrome, glomming onto the husband, an action that starts a domino effect which culminates in a bloody finale.
Though sharing in Sirk and Fassbinder’s love for melodrama and also a proclivity for investing their female characters with a far more interesting psychology and back story, the true antagonist of Kim’s pictures would be the married couple, a symbol of the new Korean middle class who have embraced both Western and traditional Korean values. Yet, instead of espousing this new order, Kim, like Imamura, demolishes it and reiterates how this thin veneer of civility is hollow and meaningless. The married couple, for all their sophistication, are driven far more by their animal urges, be they lust or jealousy, unlike the housemaid/Myeong-ja characters whose naivety may have led them to being victims but also imbues them with an inherent innocence which the married couple and their spoiled children severely lack.
As Kyung Hyun Kim states in his chapter on The Housemaid in Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, the middle class prosperity that Tong-sik and his family cling onto is a ridiculous pipe dream. All the things they identify with being middle class: the piano they are still paying off in installments; their cavernous two story house with an impractical staircase due to their polio-ridden daughter; and an immaculate Western kitchen overridden with diseased rats, illustrate how selfish and cruel they are. In the later pictures, the architecture in the film not only becomes more baroque and expressionistic but the couples themselves also turn into a horrific parody of man and wife, though in their case the roles are reversed.
From Woman of Fire onwards the young women in these pictures are depicted as being far more sympathetic while the wives are portrayed as cold, bitter and angry women, furious that their husbands couldn’t keep up in the new social order. Of course these later films were shot and released in the early 70’s to mid-80’s and thus the social milieu of Korea had changed. The idealism had evaporated into the ether and the country had several years of the Park Chung-hee military dictatorship under its belt. By then Kim’s films were in garish color and their wasn’t such a blatant conflict between traditional and contemporary values. The fully Westernized middle class family in these later pictures seem to be the epitome of liberal progress. The children are no longer sick, there is a sense of equality between the genders, and the standards of living are equal to that of any family in the West. Yet eventually we start to see the cracks in the façade. There may no longer be a traditional patriarch ruling the household but the wife’s ascendance to the throne has left neither of them happy. The husbands are impotent and ineffectual while the wives are resentful of their new power and take a lot of passive aggressive steps to illustrate how weak and impotent their husbands really are. This in turn causes the husbands to have roving eyes and turn to young flesh to awaken their sexual desire and potency again. For Kim, financial power does not necessarily grant equality between the sexes, as can be seen by the put-upon wives in these films who may bring home the bacon but they can’t fully enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Thus the wives may be seen as a symbol of familial stability but their role as lover or companion is completely moot. In fact, the couple’s relationship regresses from husband and wife to mother and child. For the wives, satisfaction equals money and they use their monetary clout to dominate their family. It is only after the husband engages in sex/rapes the young women later introduced in the picture that he gains some of his masculinity back. It’s also worth noting that the relationship the husband has with his young mistress is based on the couple being allowed to play house all with the approval of the wife and the backing of her money to pay for their extravagant lifestyle, although ironically the young mistress dominates the man just as much as the wife did. And in the case of Carnivore the husband engages in a humiliating and masochistic sexual relationship wherein he actually regresses to a literal infant when making love to his mistress, a reenactment of the husband’s own relationship with his wife. The husbands in these pictures are so used to being humiliated that even when their young mistresses give them a way out, with the introduction of a baby surrealistically found in their new home, the men are shown to be even weaker than we thought by betraying their young lovers and preferring to return to their overbearing wives.
Yet with all this said what makes Kim Ki-young’s films so unforgettable are the young women who play the role of the young mistress to the husband. From Lee Eun-shim to Yoon Yeo-jeong, Na Young-hee and No Gyeong-sin the role of paramour is a complicated part to play because the character is the catalyst for the family to react against. Furthermore, though the housemaid/Myeong-ja character is a fully fleshed out part the role doesn’t fit neatly within the parameters of victim or villain. In fact, the character could be interpreted as being at times a rather supernatural figure akin to what the critic David Kalat termed a “dead wet girl”, e.g. Sadako in the Ring franchise.
In The Housemaid, Lee Eun-shim appears out of a girl’s closet with a cloud of smoke surrounding her and though we glean from bits of dialogue that she worked at the same factory that Tong-sik works at and came to Seoul from the rural countryside we know absolutely nothing else about her. It’s almost as if she was brought into existence primarily as a tool for revenge. The same can be said for the Myeong-ja characters. In Woman of Fire, the first film that Myeong-ja appears in, she is given a back-story involving her leaving her small town after a group of young men attempt to rape her and her friend. The assault is averted only when Myeong-ja takes it upon herself to bash her attackers brains in. Though later incarnations of the Myeong-ja character aren’t given this same backstory the fact that they have the same names, repeat the same narrative beats, and also are raped by the husband it’s not to much of a leap to infer that Myeong-ja in all her incarnations is a vengeful spirit.
Aside from that there is also the physical similarity between the housemaid/Myeong-ja and the Sadako character: both have the same long distinct black hair and pale complexion and the connection with water with water that ties all three together. In Hanyeo, the housemaid seduces the man with her hair soaked from the torrential downpour from outside and in Woman of Fire there is the bathtub, a symbol of domesticity and also a site of a murder, and like Sadako the housemaid/Myeong-ja character is one created from a “deviation from traditional family structures.”
Beyond that, there is the connection between the housemaid’s first appearance in the household and the first signs of rat infestation in the middle class home. This connection links her as the harbinger of death and disease and, as in the Ring story it is up to the husband to protect his family. Of course, unlike the Ring film and book the husbands in the Hanyeo trilogy are not heroes but selfish, weak and impotent men.
Whereas Sadako takes her revenge out on innocent people, the young women in the Hanyeo trilogy and Insect Woman are careful to inflict their wrath only upon people who have wronged them. Like the stereotypical “dead wet girl” she doesn’t actively kill her victims but lets them meet their doom by their own action. Be it the spoiled brat in The Housemaid and Woman of Fire ’82 or the weak-willed husbands in these films, her preferred method is fear, be it from poison or the social stigma that comes from a publicized sex scandal. Kim’s “dead wet girls” are victims of a society that has, through the veil of economic prosperity, adopted too many modern tropes far too quickly and without any regard for those who’ve been left behind. The offspring of Myeong-ja and the hyper-modern wives in Kim’s tales can be seen in Bedevilled (2010), Happy End (1999) and the work of Im Sang-soo. Proving that the old adage that “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” is still frighteningly prescient today in our so-called modern world.
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