I'll give director Im Sang-soo a pity A for audacity, because it takes some kind of punch-drunk courage to remake a twisted classic by discarding nearly everything that made the original so delightfully deranged. While 1960's The Housemaid is by no means a masterpiece, Kim Ki-young's slow march into claustrophobic madness, from which a young Polanski might have learned a few of his better tricks, is a spooked and sweat-drenched midnight scream of middle-class panic. Im has attempted to transform his source material into something slick and icy, but he seems to have done so in a daze, like that time my dog "transformed" a shag carpet because she thought it was grass. I said it then, I'll say it now: Jesus, this stinks.
Im's folly retains Kim's simple premise, and it will be familiar to you even if you haven't seen 1960's superior shocker; let's call it the Basic Hand that Rocks the Fatal Animal Instincts formula and pray Joe Eszterhas doesn't catch wind of this nascent revival (because when Joe catches wind he can't help but pass it right back). I'll whisper so he can't hear: Family needs maid; family hires maid; man of the house really needs maid; late-night flagrant fouls ensue; suddenly everyone remembers how babies happen; and, eventually, my dog's favorite medium of expression hits the fan.
It's a fun bubblegum plot that gets blown until it's stretched into a cold transparency. Im trades Kim's cramped middle-class quarters for an airy upper-crust mansion inhabited by a couple wanting for nothing, and the frictionless ease with which they move through life infects the film. Thrillers hinging on marital transgressions are actually stories about colliding obsessions—the original gets wonderfully wrecked—and although The Housemaid's final 10 minutes dig into the crazy way fixations become life-destroying mistakes and vice versa, they play out as an apologetic coda eager to make up for the utterly indifferent people ambling through the first 90 minutes. The movie gets dirty ("suck it like a straw"), but it never heats up; people get nasty (bribery, poisoning), but they don't turn scary. Not a single character in the film seems capable of even feeling an urge, let alone acting on a forbidden one, but somehow a hardness meets a wetness and defective domestic suspense is born. Leave it to die alone.
30 SEE IT: The Housemaid opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.