I have reviews of two Korean films in this week’s epic Cinefile Chicago list: Kim Ki-young’s classic THE HOUSEMAID (1960), which screens once at Doc Films and Hong Sang-soo’s INTRODUCTION (2021), which runs for a week at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Hong Sang-soo’s INTRODUCTION (South Korea)
Gene Siskel Film Center – See Venue website for showtimes
South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo has been so prolific for so long, obsessively revisiting the same narrative and stylistic tropes, that it is often difficult even for viewers who are well-versed in his work to understand some of the gradual, almost imperceptible ways his unique brand of cinema has evolved over time. Anyone with a cursory familiarity with Hong’s movies knows to expect bifurcated structures, long takes, and cringe humor arising from soju-fueled conversations between men and women (many of them artists). But when exactly did he abandon the nudity and sex scenes that were so prominent in his early films? And when did he begin the dramatic use of zooms so prevalent in his more recent work? I’ve seen 21 of his 26 movies, many more than once, and I cannot tell you. INTRODUCTION, Hong’s 25th feature, marks a noticeably new chapter in the director’s filmography: much like his hero Eric Rohmer, who pared down his crew to just three people when making THE GREEN RAY (1986) (Hong’s personal favorite), the Korean director is also choosing to work with a skeleton crew now. INTRODUCTION is the first film in which he serves as his own cinematographer, a feat that he has since repeated on IN FRONT OF YOUR FACE, his second feature of 2021, as well as the forthcoming THE NOVELIST’S FILM. The result is a visual style that seems almost self-consciously primitive—with images that swim in and out of focus, interior scenes that appear to be unlit entirely and windows that are completely blown out. (The visual crudeness is less noticeable in INTRODUCTION, which is shot in forgiving black-and-white, than it is in the smeary digital color of IN FRONT OF YOUR FACE.) This minimalist/handmade aesthetic is perfectly captured by the movie’s U.S. theatrical-release poster, which consists of a simple pencil sketch. Hong’s approach to narrative and characterization, however, remains as complex as ever: this short comedy-drama follows an aimless young man, Young-ho (Shin Seok-ho), who has appointments with three loved ones in three discreet vignettes. In the first, he visits his doctor-father (Kim Young-ho) at work but remains in the waiting room while Dad is preoccupied tending to a patient who happens to be a famous actor (Ki Joo-Bong). In the second, Young-ho travels to Berlin to visit his fashion-student girlfriend (Park Mi-so) on a mere whim. In the third, he meets his mother (Cho Yun-hee) and her friend, the same actor from the opening scene, at a restaurant for lunch. Not much happens, but impish humor arises from what critic Chuck Bowen refers to as the film’s “structural perversity”—the sense that Young-ho, the ostensible protagonist, is continually forgotten about, sidelined or marginalized by the other characters. Hong also includes a daring leap forward in time and a realistic dream sequence, devices that can only be understood in retrospect, and prove delightful examples of the filmmaker’s poker-faced narrative gamesmanship. (2021, 66 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]
Kim Ki-Young’s THE HOUSEMAID (South Korea)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Friday, 7pm
THE HOUSEMAID, Kim Ki-young’s mind-blowing cult classic from 1960, offers a unique hybrid of domestic horror, social commentary, black comedy, and lurid melodrama that’s as pungent today as when it was first released. Made during South Korea’s original cinematic Golden Age, a brief window of time when the country was between military dictators, Kim’s provocative and singularly nutty film tells the twisted tale of a piano teacher and aspiring bourgeois, Kim Dong-shik (Kim Jin-kyu), whose brief affair with the mentally unbalanced young maid (Lee Eun-shim) he’s hired to help his overworked wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo) threatens to tear the family apart. Kim’s lively mise-en-scène exploits its chief location of the family’s two-story home to maximum effect, with each character seemingly trapped in his or her own box-like room, the distance between which is continually emphasized by many fluid tracking shots and one very dangerous staircase. The way the story touches on both the characters’ aspirations to an ideal middle-class life (symbolized by the upstairs “piano room”) and fears about the disintegration of the family unit makes the subject matter universal and timeless, but fans of contemporary South Korean cinema should recognize the articulation of working-class rage against the “one percent” as being hugely influential on Bong Joon-ho’s PARASITE in particular. And this is to say nothing of a twist ending that will knock you into next week. THE HOUSEMAID was loosely remade twice by Kim Ki-young himself, as WOMAN OF FIRE (1971) and WOMAN OF FIRE ’82 (1982), and more recently by Im Sang-soo (as THE HOUSEMAID in 2010), but the O.G. version remains unsurpassed. The gorgeous high-contrast black-and-white cinematography still looks immaculate, thanks to an extensive digital restoration by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, which was based on the original camera negative (except for two reels of lower quality that had to be sourced from an exhibition print). Screening as part of Doc’s Friday night series: Classics of South Korean Cinema. (1960, 111 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]