Monday, January 27, 2020

Noir City XVIII #3: Everybody Ought to Have A Maid...Except SOME People

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

There's a broken heart for every light on Broadway, and a cautionary tale for every busted corner streetlight in Noir City. Lucky for us denizens, our antiheroes never learn their lessons and are thereby doomed to repeat them: They pick the wrong pocket, rob the wrong joint, stare at the wrong anklet and trust the wrong people. And boy howdy, do they pay for it! They get what's comin' to 'em! And if they're lucky, Barton Keyes delivers their eulogy while lighting their cigarette.

It's such sweet schadenfreude!

Not only did Sunday bring us a double feature of South Korean noir, it brought what is easily the most entertainingly bonkers movie I've seen at this festival since Eddie showed Robert Siodmak's 1942 kitchen-sink classic, Fly-By-Night. That remains the most fun I've ever had watching a movie at Noir City. But now we have a competitor for that title in Kim Ki-young's 1960 film The Housemaid.  This movie has everything! Poison! Murder! Adultery! Young Lust! Old Stupidity! Sewing Machine Exhaustion! Dangerous staircases! Piano Lessons! Greed! Class Warfare! Obnoxious Little Brat Boys! Smart, Wily Little Girls! Horror Movie Jump Scares! Juicy Mel-o-DRAMA!!

And of course, a very, very, very, VERY bad maid.

One could draw parallels between The Housemaid and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Fatal Attraction or any number of other thrillers featuring an individual who wreaks havoc on protagonists who aren't as blameless as they seem. But watching this rightfully classified masterpiece of Korean cinema, I thought of a cross between the middle class "woe is me" of Albert Brooks' Lost in America with the ever-escalating, pitch-black comic transgressions of Danny De Vito's The War of the Roses. As Hyun Jin Cho pointed out in her intro, the Korean middle class was taking shape and rising in 1960, and director Kim Ki-young's unsparing take on their desire to keep up with the Joneses caused a lot of moviegoers' jaws to drop. She mentioned that moviegoers were yelling "KILL THE HOUSEMAID!" at the screen. You might question some of those notions while watching.

It's best to go into this film blind. I'll keep the description brief. A married couple, Mr. Kim (Kim Jin-kyu) and his wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo) have moved into a new house they can barely afford. They have two children, a bratty little boy and a sensitive, yet very astute daughter who needs crutches to get around. Mrs. Kim is a seamstress who seems to be sewing the exact same piece of material for the entire movie, and Mr. Kim gives piano and music lessons to female clientele who work with him at the factory. Of course, some of the women in his music class develop crushes on the older man, but he is quite adamant in resisting them.

Enter Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim), a young woman with pigtails that reminded me of Pippi Longstocking and every Black girl I've ever known in my life. For reasons way too complicated (and revealing) to go into here, Myung-sook becomes the live-in maid. The Kims can barely afford to make ends meet, but as Sondheim famously wrote, everybody ought to have a maid. Sondheim didn't mean the kind of maid Myung-sook becomes, but I guarantee you his dark sensibilities would have appreciated her efforts.

Bad things happen whenever Myung-sook is around. And Kim ki-Young gets maximum mileage out of placing his camera in the house's kitchen cabinets, especially the one that has a strategically placed box of rat poisin in it. (The rat poison gets more screen time than many of the secondary characters.) Things get progressively worse, and then the characters start making decisions that would definitely get you talking to the screen in less than polite company. The screws really tighten on the viewer, to the point where you lean forward in your seat to make sure you're seeing what you're seeing. 

It's such sweet schadenfreude!

To say more would be criminal. Instead, I'll quote Sondheim again: The Housemaid has "something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone." 

Noir City regular Jean Gabin got a double feature during Saturday's day of French noir, The matinee film, Razzia, finds him efficiently and ruthlessly supervising the drug trade in Paris. This being 1955, Hollywood wouldn't have touched this narcotics-based plotline, let alone had one of its biggest stars oversee it. Eddie Muller compared Gabin's casting to Jimmy Stewart being cast as a drug boss which, of course, had me immediately envisioning a machine-gun holding Stewart yelling "uh, say hello to m-my little FRIEND!" from behind a moutain of cocaine. 

Gabin has always reminded me of Robert Mitchum, and that stoic Mitchum presence is on full display here. He watches stone-faced as some really messed up stuff goes down, including a very questionable sequence where future Oscar-winner Lila Kedrova visits an all-Black drug den and does anything for drugs. (Soderbergh clearly saw this picture before he presented a far more vile version of this scene in Traffik.) Gabin's star-power and his fine acting go a long way, managing to convince us he can be heartless as well as be the object of affection of a much younger woman who immediately falls for him. (Who wouldn't?)

Adding a good deal of fun in a supporting role is Lino Ventura as one half of Gabin's enforcer duo. He's tough as nails and gets to off several people before the final credits. There's more than a bit of French Connection-style atmosphere here, though of course, this precedes that movie by 16 years. 

It wouldn't be a French Noir City day without director Jean-Pierre Melville. He's represented here by Le Doulos, a crime drama I didn't find entirely successful but was still worth watching. Melville's usual honor-amongst-thieves ideas are at play here, featuring Breathless' Jean-Paul Belmondo and future painter and singer Serge Reggiani. With the idea of long tracking shots currently in vogue due to Sam Mendes' lackluster 1917, I should point out that this film opens with a very nice long shot of Reggiani walking (and walking and walking) under bridges and on the street while the opening credits roll. 

For at least an hour, Le Doulos does not make ONE LICK OF SENSE. Eventually, things coalesce, but your patience may have long run out before then. There are a lot of double-crosses and people come and go without much explanation. There's also a lot of testoterone soaking the screen here, and the women don't fare very well at all. One unlucky lady is brutalized for a very long time onscreen, which some member of our audience found amusing enough to laugh out loud. Usually, the audiences here are respectful and very much into the films, but on occasion, we have the type of NYC art theater idiot I come to this festival to escape from every January. While I realize this isn't the nicest way to end a dispatch, it is what it is. I hope I don't have to do this again.

Next time: Will I Make My Peace With Boring Ass Antonioni?
Last time: Panic at the Festival

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