Into the House of The Housemaid

An Eccentric Director, or the Origin of ‘Kim Ki-young Style’

Korean Film Archive

Geum Dong Hyeon (Film Historian)

Geek, Monster, and Pervert

Kim Ki-young appeared as a cameo in the first episode of the 1966 omnibus film Woman. As you can guess from the line that accompanies the impressive silhouette, “As men get older, the desire to procreate becomes more and more tenacious.”, he was quite eccentric.

Director Kim Ki-young's main filmography by Kim Ki-youngKorean Film Archive

Throughout his career, he was regarded as a ‘mutant’ in Korean film history.

“Kim Ki-young is clearly a solitary but ambitious person. At the same time, he is also an artist with unknown quality, who is unable to control his talent while obsessed with the ‘conception dreams’ (madness).” Gukjeyeonghwa, October 1958

“Kim Ki-young, a director who always pursues new artistic sensibilities, is an object of awe as a lovable heretic in our film culture” Yeonghwasegye, November 1961

“Director Kim Ki-young, a true oddball in the Korean film industry, revealed a uniqueness in his adaption, production, and direction of Han Un-sa’s radio drama serialized on KA.” Hankookilbo, November 1961

“Director Kim Ki-young, who has presented unique aspects for each film, has a different lifestyle himself. Rather, should we say that it is eccentric like his films?” Kyeonghyang, July 1962

“It would be accurate to point out that the personality of the artist expressed in the (...) film works of director Kim Ki-young, who is a unique artist and has a unique filmic signature, is close to eccentricity.” Silver Screen, October 1965

“Certainly, a film director named Kim Ki-young is an unusual presence in the film industry.” Byeon In-sik, Rebellion of Cinematic aesthetics, 1972

A poster collection of "The Housemaid" seriesKorean Film Archive

The Housemaid (1960) is a film that condenses these characteristics of Kim Ki-young's films. Kim considered The Housemaid his best work. He remade it into Woman of Fire (1970) and Woman of Fire 82 (1982), and incorporated motifs from it in Insect Woman (1972) and Carnivorous Animal (1984).

The Housemaid (1960) by Kim Ki-youngKorean Film Archive

Into the House of Kim Ki-young

Now we go into the house of Kim Ki-young. Here, we can appreciate all characteristics of his films.

The Housemaid (1960) by Kim Ki-youngKorean Film Archive

A Family Lives in This House.

The Housemaid (1960) by Kim Ki-youngKorean Film Archive

And a housemaid resides in this house. The existence of this housemaid and the “desire to procreate,” which Kim Ki-young mentioned earlier in Woman, prepares this family for collapse “because (it) becomes more and more tenacious.”

Look at the sexual gazes exchanged by the husband and the housemaid. And look at the gaze of the wife and daughter looking at the gazes between the husband and the housemaid.

The Housemaid (1960) by Kim Ki-youngKorean Film Archive

Kim Ki-young does not treat the breakdown of a family as a tragedy, because there are no character in his films with which the audience can empathize. In addition, The Housemaid has a prologue that informs that the story is fictional, and an epilogue that addresses the audience outside the movie. Due to this point of view and the mixture of fact and fiction, The Housemaid breaks away from melodrama, the mainstream genre of Korean cinema at the time.

It is speculated that the dry gaze of The Housemaid stems from Kim Ki-young's intellectual background. Kim had identified himself as a Freudian, and has also said that his films aim to dissect human desires. Freud understood civilization as a 'forced compromise' and an 'irresolvable predicament.' Humanity has created civilization to ensure survival, but at that moment, civilization suppresses desire, so dissatisfaction persists.

This is the scene that best illustrates the instability inherent in civilization. The moment the husband, Dong-sik, reveals to his wife that he had an affair, the discordant sound of the piano resonates in the two-story Western-style house. The cacophony of the housemaid's piano resounds while the sound of the hostess’ sewing machine collides with the housemaid’s piano.

Stairs are the best example of instability. Film Critic, Kim Byeon-gyu said that stairs are used as an instrument that makes the human body slide and fall in Kim Ki-young’s films. These stairs, which exist in all two-story Western-style houses but can damage human bodies at any time, also materialize the fundamental discord between civilization and human desire in terms of ‘fall.’

The Housemaid (1960) by Kim Ki-youngKorean Film Archive

Rat poison and rice

Objects representing anxiety between such civilization and desire, or between modernity and pre-modernity, are placed throughout The Housemaid.

The Housemaid (1960) by Kim Ki-youngKorean Film Archive

'feather your nest'

A poster reads ‘feather your nest’, which means “to illicitly make money at someone else’s expense.”

The Housemaid (1960) by Kim Ki-youngKorean Film Archive

Traditional dolls and maskes

Dong-sik in Western clothes, the housemaid, showing her soaked body, and even traditional dolls and masks are placed on the piano.

"The Housemaid" film still (1960) by Kim Ki-youngKorean Film Archive

If Kim Ki-young is an 'exceptional being' in Korean film history, it means that he captured 'another Korea' that other Korean films failed to capture.

"The Specter of a Sonnet" by Kim Ki-youngKorean Film Archive

Kim Ki-young described an incident he experienced as a child in an autobiographical article titled “The Specter of a Sonnet.” The recurring elements in Kim's films, such as the desire for reproduction, incompetent masculinity, and sexual abuse of women, are all condensed into this article.

Female characters in Kim Ki-young's films by Kim Ki-youngKorean Film Archive

“The expression of porcelain-white skin, pink cheeks, and cherry-like lips would be just too ordinary for her. The darkness of her black pupils was incomprehensibly deep and absorbed all the light. Then I was reminded of what my mother used to say to me. ‘Don't get dragged to a woman with dark eyes. She becomes such a nymphomaniac that it makes men cough up blood to die.’ The fear of death seemed to reach my body from those eyes of her.” This phrase is from “The Specter of a Sonnet” especially reminds us of the faces of female actors featuring in his films.

This phrase is from “The Specter of a Sonnet” especially reminds us of the faces of female actors featuring in his films.

We will now leave the house of The Housemaid. The exceptional nature of Kim Ki-young's films never made an impact on mainstream Korean cinema. Box-office performance also generally declined after Insect Woman in 1972, and his film career became less active from the late 1970s. After Hunting for Idiots in 1984, KIM Ki-young had a long-term hiatus.

The Origin of Korean Film ‘Style’

But something unexpected happened. In 1992, movie trivia became a craze among users of BBS (Bulletin Board System, a sort of online community service using telephone network). Thus, a longing arose for films that others would not know. At this time, the film magazine Roadshow introduced the term ‘cult,’ and Kim Ki-young was rediscovered in the process of searching for ‘Korean cult films.’

A Photo of Kim Ki-youngKorean Film Archive

Producer Oh Ki-min said that there was originally a scene featuring Kim Ki-young in Whispering Corridors (1998). “In the origianl scene, Kim would appear as a janitor. The TV set in the janitor’s room makes static noise while he dozes off. I wanted to put the scene as an insert before and after the introduction or a murder scene. It was like a homage to him. But he passed away in an unexpected accident on Feb. 5, 1998, so I couldn't put it into practice.”

A photo of Kim Ki-youngKorean Film Archive

Kim Ki-young had hardly enjoyed the joy of ‘rediscovery.’ He died at 3 AM on Feb. 5, 1998, along with his wife, in a fire at his home. However, it feels like he is still looking at the screen of a ‘Korean cinema’ like a drowsy janitor sitting in front of the TV. The ghost of Kim Ki-young still haunts Korean cinema.

The Sea Knows (Kim Ki-young, 1961)

Credits: Story

Planning and Production by Korean Film Archive
Curation by Geum Dong Hyeon (Film Historian)
Production Arranged by Lee Ji-youn·Song Eun-ji
Edit Configuration by Agnes Park·Ko Sang-sok
Translation by Hwang Miyojo

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps