Kim Ki-young and His Korean Femme Fatales
On the 5th of February 1998, Korean film director Kim Ki-young and his wife Kim Yu-bong were killed in a house fire in Seoul, South Korea. The death came unexpectedly and in the moment of Kim Ki-young’s artistic ‘resurrection’ and rehabilitation as one of the most significant Korean film directors. In fact, after a period of professional stagnation throughout the 1980s, Kim Ki-young was rediscovered in the 1990s by Korean cult film fans, and soon after, an interest from Western film communities followed. Motivated by the growing interest in his films, Kim Ki-young began working on a comeback film to be titled Diabolical Woman. Unfortunately, due to his sudden death, the project was never realized.
Most of Kim Ki-young’s greatest productions come from the Golden Age of Korean cinematography – the period between 1953 and 1973, during which the South Korean president, Syngman Rhee, helped rejuvenate the local film industry by making it exempt from taxation. This had a direct impact on the quality and especially quantity of film-making in Korea at the time, increasing the number of produced movies from less than ten per year at the beginning of 1950s to over a hundred by the end of the 1950s. Kim Ki-young’s debut film was a 1955 anti-communist melodrama, Box of Death. It was also the first Korean film to use synchronous sound. The commercial success of the film allowed production of other films, mostly melodramas, a genre which would soon evolve into more realistic productions. In fact, Kim Ki-young was sympathetic to Italian Neo-Realism and, “…has been lauded as one of the three fathers of Korean realism, along with Shin Sang-ok and Yu Hyon-mok. This critical framework casts his career as an early burst of neo-realist brilliance in the lost films of the late 1950s culminating in the 1961 classic, Hanyo (The Housemaid), an expressionist watershed followed by a long and slow decline into muddled genre cinema.” (Justin Bowyer, The Cinema of Japan and Korea).
The Housemaid is probably one of the greatest Korean movies. In the film, the switch from realism to expressionism enabled construction of truly appalling terror that is slowly destroying the lives of the main characters. The Housmade, “… is a grotesque psychological thriller/horror hybrid about an amorous middle-aged man entrapped by a greedy young housemaid who is possessed of an animal-like desire for survival and upward mobility. (The man’s wife also turns out to be merciless and cruel, and when the wife discovers that the housemaid is pregnant with her husband’s baby, a killing game ensures.) The movie has been widely praised as a classic displaying a perfect mastery of film-making skill during a relatively early period of Korean cinema history: Bong Joon-ho even goes so far as to claim that it is the Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) of Korean cinema.” (Claire Perkins, Film Trilogies: New Critical Approaches). The Housemaid is like chamber cinema, which uses distinctively dramatic sets and special lights. It has impressive sound effects. The actors, including the housemaid (Lee Eun-shim) express their psychological states intensively and fill the screen fully. Kim Ki-young created this kind of thespian atmosphere, and presented a theme using editing and camera movement to show us the complex elements in a closed space. As if sucking blood, the images of the movie grip the audience. (www.web.archive.org)
Another interesting aspect of The Housemaid is the fact that it reflects the impact of Hollywood on Korean Golden Age cinematography. It is evident in the way the characters, their needs and desires, as well as the general mise-en-scène, undergo the process of Americanisation. “The Housemaid (1960) …examines Koreas experience of modernization through a “borrowed” visual style. Yet another cautionary tale about Americanization, it tells the story of an upwardly mobile family whose newly built Western-style house becomes the site of illicit sexuality, abortion, murder, suicide, and family collapse.” (Christina Klein, Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon-ho, American Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 4, Dec., 2008). It is also worth noting that the idea of ascribing the role of oppressor to a female character was quite original at the time. Kim Ki-young used this theme in many of his later movies (Woman of Fire (1970), Insect Woman (1972)). This opens up some questions as to the original intention of the theme. Is it possible that the director, through the medium of his movies, revealed his subconscious desire for female domination? Or perhaps, the idea of transformation of a subordinate servant into an aggressive and pain–inflicting femme fatale, which was also used in the 1999 Japanese horror film Audition, has its roots in more broadly understood cultural determinants of East Asia.
(The Housemaid was remade by Im Sang-soo in 2010.)
Film Credit: KMDb01