Saturday, August 21, 2010

HANYO (THE HOUSEMAID): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Do-yeon Jeon, Seo Woo, Yeo-Jong Yun, Jung-Jae Lee, Park Ji-Young
Director: Sang-soo Im
Runtime: 107 min.
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Verdict: I’m sorry I forget, but why was it made?
Genre: Thriller, Drama

        There’s this little rule running inside our heads somewhere, a rule in the book titled The Real Worth of Everything Sold to You, and it says that there is no replacement for smartness. It might be the smug little elitist within us, I suspect, but all of us indulging in observations and analysis, and judgments, do tend to hold a sizeable bias for the one we perceive to be smart. I mean, given two works of art with dramatic truth within them, we tend to instinctively pick the smart ones. I mean, as a reflection of our choice. Smart as in, the wittier of the two. Seriousness, I guess, is usually attributed to middlebrow tastes. One ought to be able to crack a joke, and more importantly take a joke. A sense of humor is often assumed as the mark of refreshing intellect. I think, for the most part, rightly so. So, when I say Hanyo (2010) is a puzzling little film, I don’t intend to attach any kind of worth to it. The film itself is a dull, boring, often monotonous, and mostly pointless. I hate invoking source material (this is a remake of the wonderful 1960 original), especially when a film so clearly wants to present an alternate take, and not simply rehash it.
        But I got to here, because my criticism of the finished movie is almost secondary, especially in the way the film’s problems are caused, and where and how they are caused. The final movie is merely a showcase of all those problems, which better put, are artificialities that so often betray a bend inspired by academics and literature and no bloody observation of real life. Inert, and locked within the artifice of its own world.
        So yes, given that you’re a filmmaker of considerable skill, I ask – why would you choose to pick a smart satire, especially a compassionate one (for those are very rare), and make not just a drama but a melodrama out of it? The best of satire is based on the most astute of observations on life. A melodrama is, more often than not, a contrived setting. This here is the underlying principles of the genres. Erotica is not an issue, because with or without the graphic nudity in question – the 1960 film has understandably none – the 1960 film was much more potent and convincing in its erotica. This film here has all the lust and sexual tension of a porn film.
        So yes, one might argue, why should a satire be considered greater, or say higher in stature, or worthier in intellect to a melodrama? And that is a most interesting question, dear reader, because more than any two genres, the satire and the melodrama seem to be somehow the opposite sides of the same coin. A coin minted out of clichés and conventions. A satire, on one hand, flaunts its usage of these clichés, and exaggerating these generalized notions, creates a very specific work. A melodrama, on the other hand, gives the impression that it is specific, that it is merely a story, but beneath its very thin mask (the mask ought to be thin because a melodrama so often wants to pass messages too), it is only pulling those very clichés and conventions and yes, exaggerating them. Thus, a satire is honest, while melodrama is not, and that is what causes our judgmental reaction.
        The opening sequences, both pre-credits, might just be the key to the eventual tone of the two films, both mightily different in the manner in which they assume the politics of their subject and betraying in the process why the earlier one is a satire (observation) and other is a melodrama (something that passes exaggeration for real life). In Hanyo (1960), the opening shot takes us into a house, through the window, where we meet a husband and a wife sitting in a room while their two kids, a boy and a girl, play in the foreground. It is a typical evening family scene, the sort they sell you in ads and children books. You know, the cozy image of Daddy Mommy Mary and John. Daddy reading a newspaper, Mommy sewing, Mary and John playing on the floor. The archetypical family. Into one of these days, the husband narrates to his wife a rather curious newspaper report - A man in Gimcheon committed adultery with his maid. It sets off a few moments of discussion where the wife talks about the sleazy nature of men, and the man discusses why the housemaid is more the woman running the house than the wife herself. Credits.
        The interplay was within a room, wondering about the world outside the window. In a rather funny way, that was Korea back then, and this movie too, until it was discovered many decades later and realized as the wonderful work it is. That was a world not very different from our own, because, it seems to me, the gender equation within a family never is. We might go back and forth over this patriarchal society of ours, but the truth seems, that the genders co-exist, and within the confines of those walls the situation might best be described not via equations but via paradigms. And I intend to stress the word – coexist. We see it all around us.
        That was what Mr. Ki-Young’s wonderful wonderful film was about, and the opening and the closing shot only ridicule the utter melodrama of the other notions. Notions that are carried around by false films like this Hanyo. And once again the opening shot. This is the Korea of today, and we see a bustling evening in the downtown of some Korean city (I forget the setting, but I’m not sure if it is Seoul). Discos, gymnasiums, eateries, superstores all of them bustling. A woman stands on a hoarding and jumps to the ground and commits suicide. People notice, gradually, and gasp. It is not a newspaper report, but the event itself. That, right there, are the first seeds of melodrama.
        The titular housemaid, a widow, sees this ghastly scene. She is asked to come and be a housemaid in the house of a rich gentleman, whose wife is pregnant. She goes. The husband, whose only character trait seems to be that he lusts on hot women and after having banging them raises his arms in victory and expects life to pin a medal on his chest, well, exhibits his behavior. She gets pregnant, and stuff happens, and more stuff happens. It now occurs to me, as I discuss the plot, that it would take tremendous effort to render such one-dimensional characters as this bunch in such a story as this and still cause the story to happen. I now have a greater respect for soaps.
        So yes, the gender equation constructed here is hopelessly contrived, and worse still is not even an equation. Equations have variables, you see. So I wouldn’t want to go about dissecting the movie’s politics by dissecting the plot, because (a) there’s not much there, and (b) if one doesn’t put much effort in the first place why bother analyzing it. What is a more fruitful avenue is the visual architecture of the film, and understanding why it is the absolutely wrong choice for making any kind of commentary on its subject. Raises also several fascinating questions.
        Much has been made of the severely expensive set – the expansive house. It is like any other big house you’ve come to see in the movies, and I couldn’t really be much affected by it. It never assumes a character of its own, it is never used, and it never impresses itself. I do not remember now if the movie uses tracking shots to highlight the expansiveness, ala The Shining, but what interests me, more than anything, is the difference in aspect ratios of the shots in the two films, and how it is the result of the choice of the family whose story is to be told.
        The 1960 film was squarer, much like most black and white films featuring household stories. IMDb lists the AR as 1.55:1. The present one here, is more widescreen in nature, having ambitions of being grand in scale, and as can be seen from IMDb, the AR is typical widescreen (2.35:1). Oh, I wouldn’t want to enter into the technical discussion about modern equipment, and how they demand anamorphic compositions. What I intend to rather say, is that the larger AR of the 1960 film makes it feel more immediate. More real. Maybe real is the wrong word. Maybe, home is more like it. 1.55:1 feels like home. Feels like television. You see, the whole thing is about the gender relations in a middle class family. Our family. The bourgeoisie. Our little houses cannot sustain widescreen compositions. And that story, the male-female thing, the husband-wife thing, is most closely and most truthfully felt in our house. But the present Hanyo expands the scale. The middle class is no longer the setting. It is the rich it is after. The guys whose houses are so large all those jokes from Coolie No.1 come to mind. Yes, those houses do deserve widescreen, but coming from a middle class background, my question, which I believe is far more interesting and maybe a trifle unsettling, is this – why does such a film about the filthy rich feel so false to me? I say “such a film” because our melodramas, such as Mr. Karan Johar’s films, often employ such aesthetic choices for their stories. Maybe my memory is failing me as I write this, but I cannot seem to recall a true film about a rich person. A rich set of people. A film about rich people always ends up with thriller/insidious notes. Why cannot I see a truthful drama based on them? I see so many documentaries and movies being made on poverty. Movies and filmmakers wanting to make real movies, though I wonder if that comes from primitivism. The rich deserve movies too. I mean real movies. Or is it that there is really nobody who is that rich, and at the end of it we all share those immediate sentiments of middle class. I don’t really know where I’m going with this, but seriously, if money was class I think none of us is filthy rich. So yeah, a larger aspect ratio is always the way to go, right?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

there seems to be a gap in your understanding of korean culture based on your analysis of the movie...

man in the iron mask said...

Anonymous,
That might be very true. I tried to view the movie through an eye experienced only in the most universal of emotions, and not those are well versed in the Korean culture.

It would be great if you could shed some light here. Of what I might have overlooked, and of your thoughts on the film.

Thanks