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Woman of Fire Kim Ki-Young

Woman of Fire featured

In 2006, I was lucky enough to attend a Kim Ki-Young retrospective at Cinémathèque Francaise. The director is probably mostly known for The Housemaid (Hanyo). Released in 1960, it’s one of the most famous Korean films ever made. The story about a music teacher and his wife who hire a maid who turns out to be a threat to the family’s foundation was an instant success.

It also spawned two remakes, one in 1971 called Woman of Fire (Hwanyeo) and the second in 1982. I will concentrate on the first of these remakes. The plot revolves around two young girls from the countryside who come to Seoul. One of them, Myeong-Ja, gets a position as a maid in the Dong-Sik family. Once there, things get heated quickly, and the story is full of twists and turns.

“When you autopsy human nature, black blood will flow out. That is what we call desire.”

This quote from Kim paints an accurate picture of what his films look like. Storytelling is not the main purpose of his films. The Housemaid might be based on the Geumchon murder case, but Kim primarily focuses on the absurdities of the story. This would be even clearer in the remakes, which feel more like style exercises than anything else. There is no hint of anything realistic or naturalistic.

The acting is, more often than not, over the top. Eun Shim-Lee, who played the housemaid in the original film, was so convincing as the hated Myung-Sook that she struggled to get other roles in the future, but in the remakes, that kind of acting is typical for all the characters. The films were different in other aspects as well. While The Housemaid was in black-and-white, the remakes were not, and the use of colour is quite striking, particularly in Woman of Fire.

Woman of Fire
Woman of Fire

Red and blue are the predominant colours, and they are utilized in a way that points forward towards Argento’s colour palette in Inferno (1980). Cinematically, the film is striking, with camera movements that draw attention to themselves. The artifice is always on full display. The exaggerated expressions of the actors wouldn’t be out of place in a Żuławski film.

The film begins with the camera rowing inside a house where several murders have been committed. The detective who is being interviewed by reporters lashes out at them and says that minors commit their crimes because of the negative depiction of society in the media. Then he continues berating the housemaid’s best friend, saying that girls from the countryside only come to Seoul to work in bars or as maids and corrupt the families of higher standing.

This is one of the main themes of the films: The way those girls are seen as intruders (parasites?) who destabilize society, whereas they might, in fact, be catalysts for change. The family in the first film lives in the centre of Seoul, but in the remakes, the action takes part in the outskirts, where the family also runs a chicken farm.

That setting also helps immensely with the theme of male vs female and if the former is needed in society. The female characters in Kim’s films are usually powerful, and the theme of the battle of the genders would be even more clear in the 1977 film Io Island (Iodo). It takes place on an island with a largely female population. They engage in primitive rituals where men are basically only needed for procreation—a highly recommended film with an ending that still is quite shocking.

Woman of Fire

The Woman of Fire shows her real colours

In the chicken farm in Woman of Fire, the fact that the male birds are disposed of is directly referred to in the film. That theme would be taken even further in the 1982 version. The women in Kim’s films are generally strong and, in retrospect, feel more like resourceful characters rather than the demons they were seen as at the time. A fact that propelled housewives to shout “Die maid!” when The Housemaid was released.

For censorship reasons, sexual acts are often depicted behind blurred windows or a door with a glass structure that prevents a clear view. The scenes are enhanced by montage, for instance, when the blacksmiths are banging at metal. The montage is instrumental throughout with its brash colours that sometimes feel like pop art, in particular in violent scenes or other climactic moments.

The set design would be worthy of a chapter in itself, but I want to mention the importance of the stairs in the films. Apart from its evident cinematographic qualities, it also works as an (almost as obvious) metaphor for class society. It’s a constant presence in the film and also the location for several of its pivotal moments. If that would make anyone think of Parasite, that might not be so far-fetched. When the film was screened in Paris, it was introduced by Bong Joon-ho, who said this was his favourite of all Kim’s films.

The Korean Film Archive has made many classic Korean films available on its YouTube account. Among them are the two remakes of The Housemaid. They are both highly recommended.

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