Just how much had Korea changed during the eleven years between the Kim Ki-young’s wildly successful Buñuelesque 1960 film about fading societal roles, “The Housemaid,” and the frenetic remake Kim directed in 1971, “Woman Of Fire?” Korea was neither politically nor economically stable in the decade between the two films and this constant upheaval seriously threatened the urban middle classes, who like every class, dreamed of economic growth. As was the case with most 20th century post-war economies, rapid production and a rebuilding of the infrastructure meant that the social order was going to be affected, and both men and women laborers from the countryside became a human resource for industry or servants in urban middle-class families. This economic situation was clearly present when Kim directed the original “Housemaid,” but it is clear from the earliest scenes in the “Woman Of Fire” that the nuances to the story were primarily intended to reflect the roles that women were now playing in contemporary early 1970s Korean society, which like America, had seen a change in attitudes from women resulting from the liberation movement.
Kim Ki-young cleverly acknowledges the impact of his original film by opening “Woman Of Fire” at a police station where Jeong-suk, the matriarch of a doomed middle class family, is being interrogated about the murder of her husband and the family’s housemaid. A deranged young man has confessed to the murders, but also in the interrogation room is a close friend of our murdered housemaid who is there with a letter from her dead friend that points to the matriarch as the actual killer. The ending is un fait accompli as, again, we are keeping the progression of the story fairly close to the original of the 1960 film, which was massively successful, so there seemed to be no need to build suspense and progressively unfold the tragedy, and by doing so, the viewer can spend time watching the entire narrative reacting to the nuances made to the characters which brings out Kim’s clear comments about the changing roles of women.
As with the original, we have a middle class family in trouble. This traditional middle class family has a mother, father, and two children, a boy and girl. They own a home where the father Dong-sik is a piano-playing songwriter who primarily lives off the labor of his wife, but unlike its 1960 counterpart, in “Woman Of Fire,” the wife, Jeong-suk, isn’t just a seamstress who is pregnant and is having issues maintaining the home and her layabout husband. The matriarch of the family in the 1971 version owns a large chicken ranch, which is profitable but not profitable enough for her to afford a housemaid for the family, which is essential in keeping up the false appearance of a successful middle class family living in Seoul. Still, Jeong-suk is off to a placement service broker to find a suitable housemaid and soon meets Myeong-ja, a country girl who runs away to the city with her friend after killing the two men who tried to rape them in the countryside, who has arrived in Seoul with different agenda than her companion. Myeong-ja’s friend wants to become a barmaid (polite term for prostitute), but Myeong-ja wants to be a housemaid in a wealthy home where she could “learn valuable things” and eventually find a husband. Jeong-suk is quick to tell Myeong-ja that she has financial issues, which suits Myeong-ja fine as she only asks that her new boss find her a suitable husband as payment, which becomes their agreement for her employment. This scene and an earlier scene in which the investigating officer expresses his loathing for “country girls who come to Seoul for illicit purposes” quickly bear out the fragile economic situation in South Korea of the early 1970s.
The sexuality is another area in which the differences between the two films become readily apparent. Though not visually graphic, the situations and dialog force to the surface an attitude where women are beginning to take a more demonstrative role in the urban family. Such is the scene where Jeong-suk, after a tryst, playfully jokes with her husband and freely discusses their need for innovation and “role playing” with their love making to which Dong-sik satirically responds by condemning the “things that women write these days about sex.” This frank discussion occurs while Myeong-ja is in her bedroom, but what is not clear is whether Kim Ki-young wants us to believe that Myeong-ja has overheard this conversation. Regardless, something motivates Myeong-ja to creep towards her employer’s bedroom where she definitively sees them having intercourse and responds by falling to the floor while having a fit.
I find this scene somewhat problematic as it sets up Myeong-ja’s eventual psychotic over-sexual behavior and possessiveness as being more of a result of either Myeong-ja’s attempts to emulate the fairly healthy attitudes she overheard about sexuality or as a PSTD response to seeing sexuality after her rape in the countryside, as opposed to the point of the original film, where there is no doubt that Myeong-ja is a victim of a fraudulent class imperative that is enforced on her after she must miscarriage (here it is an abortion) when she becomes pregnant from a rape by Dong-sik which leads to her subsequent sexual and violent actions. The original class elements of the 1960 original film are in place with the remake, but the focus here in the 1971 remake is on Kim Ki-young’s sexual message, where Myeong-ja’s friend from the country, who now works a prostitute, is applauded by the director for being honest about her intentions with money and men, which conflicts with the then current attitude where a middle class woman lives a lie by prostituting herself for a husband in order to maintain the social order. The final shot of the film, where Myeong-ja’s seductively dressed friend carries a fallen, shoeless, all-in-white Jeong-suk through the rain, is a grim final statement about a fading society where the modern promiscuous yet honest woman is seen as stronger than the middle class family woman.
Two things that Kim ki-young does greatly improve on in his 1971 entry into the “Housemaid” trilogy is the use of sound and visuals. The original 1960 film is shot in grim black and white, and Kim uses shadows and dimly lit rooms to express the middle class failure in the home of the main characters. The way characters enter each scene and from what direction are good visual tools that help us subliminally understand their intentions. In “Woman Of Fire” the black and white is gone and replaced with two primary colors, blue and red, that aggressively add to the mood of certain scenes. The scenes where either the married couple make love or Myeong-ja is raped have the same red filter to indicate that there is the same negative connotation to the sexuality in those vastly different interactions. In a scene where Myeong-ja eavesdrops on a conversation between Dong-sik and Jeong-suk where they discuss getting rid of their housemaid, Myeong is bathed in a tragic blue light. Alternatively, the off-kilter music that is used when the children are playing to express unrest in the home is also played when Myeong-ja kills a rat under her foot shortly afterwards. These choices add to the mood of “Woman Of Fire” and match the scenes of complete insanity that will soon follow as things spiral out of control in a louder, uglier way that its predecessor perhaps couldn’t do in 1960.
The Full “Woman Of Fire” With English Subs
I have in the past questioned a director’s desire to remake a successful film which they have already created. Such was the case with Michael Haneke’s superb 1997 film,”Funny Games,” which seems to have been remade with Hollywood actors in 2007 if only to further mock the”Hollywood/happy ending” where the good guys always win. Even with that intention, I found the shot by shot remake to be a waste of that talented director’s skills, and after hearing Haneke speak at the Harvard Film Archive in the same year the Naomi Watts/Tim Roth version was released, it seemed clear that the request to remake the film came as an edict from Haneke’s US representation. As for Kim ki-young’s 1971 remake of “The Housemaid,” despite some needlessly harsh comments the director makes in the film regarding the divisive use of sexuality by women in early 1970s South Korea, “Woman Of Fire,” remains as an important document that sometimes brutally stresses the reality of a ever fading middle class, with its impossible to maintain social imperatives that were still hanging around in a economically ravaged South Korea that wasn’t improving even after a decade. Whereas the original took its family’s decline in a slow. but ultimately shocking conclusion, Kim ki-young directs “Woman Of Fire” in a dizzying and even borderline nightmarish way that amplified the need for an immediate change in social attitudes that were harming both the rich and the poor for no other purpose but preserving pride.