One of the great joys in viewing the films amassed under the World Cinema Project banner is discovering the richness of a nation’s cultural and scenic backdrop. To be sure, individual stories are told within this illustrative framework, but many of these features are just as notable for the absorbing social portrait simultaneously realized. In some films, though, a more restricted, delineated narrative does unfold, a poignant, characteristic model of that society’s composition. As in the exceptionally confined case of The Housemaid, written and directed by Kim Ki-young, and in Catalino (Lino) Brocka’s Insiang, written by Mario O’Hara and Lamberto E. Antonio, based on O’Hara’s story, the central, overriding emphasis is concentrated on particular families, which, while perhaps representative of their respective community, also stand firm as points of singular dramatic focus.
Although Insiang, released in 1976, begins with a contextual series of shots situating the drama, and thus establishes, rather nakedly, the film’s jarring milieu, Kim’s film, released in 1960, seldom departs from its central location. Beginning with its opening shot, a vantage returned to throughout the film, The Housemaid is a sometimes uncomfortably intimate study of private opposition. Peering through the window of a middle-class household, into what the wife of the film (Ju Jeung-ryu) refers to as a “sacred home,” notions of an established social and domestic decorum, fixed yet surreptitiously complex, are relayed first in dialogue then in action. The familial situation bears suggestions of preexisting hostility, not only between the wife and husband, Dong-sik Kim (Kim Jin-kyu), but also, extending the discord to a prevalent conflict of the sexes, between their young son, Chang-soon (Ahn Sung-ki), and his older sister, Ae-soon (Lee Yoo-ri), a disabled girl the boy relentlessly torments. There are surely moments of kindness and consideration (as conceivably in many families fraught with strife, it’s not all bad all the time), but the implicit and oftentimes explicit friction nevertheless portends an evident fragility.
It’s this very vulnerability that is thoroughly tested throughout The Housemaid, first by Kyung-hee Cho (Um Aing-ran) and her friend and fellow factory worker Seon-young Kwak (Ko Seon-ae), both of whom are taking piano lessons from Dong-sik Kim. They surface as giddy schoolgirls, slipping love notes to their married instructor — “Love is nothing to be ashamed of,” Kyung-hee tells her friend — but their rather naïve sentiments scarcely foretell the danger to come, from Seon-young’s death following a reprimand for such romantic audacity to the conjugal stability upended by what manifests from the ardor. The discretion is further and more significantly ruptured by the arrival of Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim), a housemaid employed by the Kim family. Her appearance is like that of a foreign entity, entering the “sacred home” and, through her enigmatic way of observing and responding, her distinct physical bearing (licking her lips and slinking around the house) and her imprecise campaign, infiltrating the residence to challenge the ethical and carnal inhibitions of what is aptly analogized in the film as those of a caged wild animal.
As noted, the initial presentation of Insiang’s setting, in the slums of Tondo, Manila, is markedly different in both relevance and social circumstance. Unlike the increasingly modernized dwelling of The Housemaid, here the conditions are staggeringly squalid. Before honing in on a more precise paradigm of the region’s desperation and frustration, Brocka presents a world that is poor and crude, a wretched state that impels the behavior of those examined. Emerging from the foulness is Insiang’s primary vessel for identification, Hilda Koronel as the title character. A conspicuous diamond in the rough, she initially assumes a more passive role, a viewer surrogate through whom Tondo is glimpsed in all its despair. Eventually, however, as in The Housemaid, she is thrust into a startling clash of external aims, becoming directly involved as a result of disconcerting peripheral forces. And again, also like Kim’s film, it is a domestic scenario that prompts the incursion and subsequent tragedy. Insiang lives with her mother, Tonya (Mona Lisa), who was abandoned by her husband and is now romantically involved with a younger man, a slaughterhouse worker named Dado (Ruel Vernal). When she isn’t busy condemning their extended family, Tonya takes out her lot in life by heaping scorn upon Insiang. Dado steps into the friction and assumes the role of good cop to Tonya’s bad, but the routine is merely a pretense to shield his lascivious ulterior motives.
Family squabbles exacerbate Insiang’s demonstrative compression, giving rise to the anger and extreme emotions born from a steady escalation of physical assault, betrayal and domination. The interior of Insiang’s home, severely cluttered and undesirably open (its primitive kitchen is mere feet from its ostensible bathroom, and there is little to obscure the view from either), sets the stage for seemingly inevitable intrusion. While contending with her frequently breached privacy — literally in her home and as a matter of social fact in a town that seems to thrive on gossip and scandal — Insiang is also oppressed by her professed boyfriend, Bebot (Rez Cortez), who harbors dubious intentions of his own. Further complicating matters for Insiang, as with most in the community, is a life burdened by not only relative disharmony but also a painful, collective idleness, often discussed but rarely assuaged. “In the background,” writes critic Phillip Lopate, “is a third suitor for Insiang’s hand, Nanding [Marlon Ramirez], a serious, studious boy — and, of course, she barely notices him. He is the one who keeps telling her she must ‘leave this place,’ as he has every expectation of doing.” But will he? Will any of them? In its culmination of personal and cultural variance, Brocka’s film has often been compared to Luis Bunuel’s Los olvidados (1950), another feature where poverty and despondency reign, where there is a similar sense of socioeconomic stagnation, and where the pervasive hardships foster baser instincts.
Shot in just three weeks, under less than ideal circumstances, including a deterring curfew, Insiang exudes what historian Pierre Rissient calls a “raw brutality.” It also accentuates, in its narrative and in the case of its theatrical release, the entwined, embattled connection between social and political influence. Insiang was not well-received in 1976 Philippines, eliciting the contempt of Imelda Marcos, wife of then president Ferdinand Marcos, who decried the harsh and ugly (if genuine) depiction of a nation the political couple strove to present in the most flattering way possible, even if that meant encouraging blatant falsehoods. Though it became the first Filipino production to play at the Cannes Film Festival, the film faced governmental censorship from the Marcos regime and failed at the box office, resulting in the bankruptcy of Brocka’s production company.
A subtler affront to prevailing socioeconomic standards is present in the fundamental premise of The Housemaid, which hinges on the Kim’s expanding home, the necessity of multiple sources of income and by the simple fact they can (barely) afford to hire a maid; and as in Sirk, a television entering the frame represents the defining object of modernity and contemporary comfort. Indeed, to the detriment of all involved, Dong-sik acquiesces to intimidation because of this precarious financial dependency, and at its understated core, the film is a scathing critique of hesitant economic development and shifting social advancement. More explicitly, though, it’s a film probing what Dong-sik refers to at the end of the picture, addressing the audience, as “primitive desires.” Kim Ki-young, born, as noted by professor Kyung Hyun Kim, “around 1920 in Seoul (in the south) but raised mainly in Pyongyang (in the north), before Korea was divided after World War II,” would later remake The Housemaid twice, as Fire Woman (1971) and Fire Woman ’82 (1982), but this iteration is most remarkable for its contemporary boldness. “[Reaching] beyond its glossy surfaces to question the validity of conservative family values and class divisions,” according to Kim, the film came out during a brief period of moderately lax censorship in Korea, which The Housemaid surely pushed the boundaries of, and although its epilogue feels like something of a “safety net,” in the words of Bong Joon-ho, a comic restoration of what has apparently been an imagined cautionary tale, there is no denying the visceral, sexual potency of what preceded this advisory finale.
In essence, the erotic force of The Housemaid largely rests on the shoulders of Lee Eun-shim. Her Myung-sook is a beguiling temptress with unflappable impudence; she is an inescapable, stalking menace, associated by Bong to a quintessential femme fatal. Yet there is a remarkably twisted density to this young woman, first seen in the way she captures a rat and holds it with warped curiosity and devilish delight (her smoking habit should be the least of the family’s concerns), then progressively displayed by her impulsive, pathological and predatory vitality, feeding a film laden with conniving duplicity and suspicion, ultimately yielding to retribution and wrath. When Mr. Kim resists her enticements, she threatens him with an accusation of rape, but that is just a sampling of The Housemaid’s “rich sense of perversity,” as Martin Scorsese notes, and from there, the lives of all concerned spiral rapidly out of control, with frantic, drastic and horrifically fatal consequences. The stifling atmosphere crafted by Kim Ki-young is amplified by storms perpetually raging in the background, the mental and physical violence indoors punctuated by thundercracks outside, an ominous audiovisual articulation of the film’s tension, fueling its photographic intensity and heightened psychological expression. Both Scorsese and Bong applaud Kim’s formal control, particularly as it concerns, and radically manipulates, images and movement, and with piercing cinematography by Kim Deok-jin, the camera often underscores objects and faces with a penetrating uncertainty, striking a claustrophobic imbalance and augmenting a steady, anxious and lurid acceleration of seductive unease. The Housemaid has, like Insiang, also drawn comparisons to Luis Buñuel, as well as Alfred Hitchcock, and Scorsese and Bong both liken the picture to a horror film, which is, in nearly every regard, entirely suitable (testifying to its mosaic of formal and narrative characteristics, Bong also dubs the film a crime drama and melodrama).
After Myung-sook becomes pregnant by Dong-sik and he is left to make his overwrought confessional, he absurdly attempts to shifts the blame, evading his own responsibility. It’s a tactic mirroring the responses of both Dado and Bebot in Insiang, where, states Lopate, “the laws of physical attraction trump any ethical considerations.” “The two men who take sexual advantage of Insiang,” Lopate writes, “conveniently excuse their rapacity by saying that they are only men — in effect, animals — and can’t help themselves.” Whatever the reasoning of these weak-willed men (and it’s hardly convincing), Brocka’s film shifts the full strength of its empathetic emphasis to Insiang as she copes with the harrowing aftershocks of Dado’s assault. Hers is an awkward response, cautiously moving forward under the weight of moral strain and conflicted emotional reckoning, exposing surprising depths to her character. This chaste woman has become, according to Rissient, “sullied,” and the resulting outward corollary is a far more sympathetic demonstration compared to The Housemaid. Yet Insiang’s lashing out at life’s injustices transmits an equally impassioned vengeance. “The film’s psychology is intricate and subtle,” observes Lopate. But still, he adds — describing The Housemaid as much as Insiang — “it is the tactility of desire and matter that leaves the deepest impression.”
Watch The Housemaid and Insiang at the Criterion Channel.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.