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"The Housemaid": An unsatisfying update to the sexy postwar original 

Wednesday, Feb 2 2011
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Fifty years after Kim Ki-young's postwar hothouse original, Im Sang-soo attempts a sleek, breathless update to the tale of a household riven by a sexy domestic. This time around, instead of a family-man music teacher getting ensnared, a bored, feckless maid (Jeon Do-yeon) is seduced by a rich scion and chewed up by the conniving women in his orbit. Im pushes the heat and danger of the affair, especially in one pulse-quickening encounter that fills the screen with the pair's flushed skin. But despite eccentric touches, like a handheld street-shot overture and Grand Guignol Omen references, there's little difference between this story and soap-opera intrigue. Im at first seems set to skate on the edge of camp — displaying the pulpy zeal that made his true-life assassination story, The President's Last Bang, a shocking black comedy — but then lets the tension evaporate. Within these limitations, Jeon (a Cannes winner in 2007 for Secret Sunshine) portrays a bad-life-decision-maker sympathetically (opposite Kim veteran Yun Yeo-jong as the flintily skeptical, older head servant), and the inevitable comparisons between Im and Kim, and Korea then and now, are of historical and stylistic interest. But Im falls short of achieving the éclat of his predecessor's oddity — and the hectically surreal finale feels like the work of a director who wanted to end with another bang, but wasn't sure how.

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Nicolas Rapold

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