When an orphaned Vietnamese girl is hired to be a housemaid at a haunted rubber plantation in 1953 French Indochina, she unexpectedly falls in love with the French landowner and awakens the vengeful ghost of his dead wife... who is out for blood.
After attending the US Premiere of the Vietnamese horror/romantic drama The Housemaid at this year’s LA Film Fest – I was left thinking about a line of dialogue from the 1988 comedy classic Big Business – starring two comic greats, Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin.
It’s a story of two sets of mismatched twins – one from money and the other not. The rich ones are having an argument about how the rich (but for real poor) one is unable to keep it together as far as her work at their major corporation. And so the rich Bette Midler says to her sister Lily Tomlin:
“You’re so wispy, wispy, wispy! Why can’t you focus?”
And since I live in a world of television and movie quotes fit for every occasion, this popped up in my head – perfectly summing up my reactions to The Housemaid.
It’s 1953 French Indochina. A young orphan girl named Linh (Kate Nhung) shows up on the doorstep of Captain Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud) – desperately looking for work. The household is run by a firm Mrs. Han (Kim Xuan) and she agrees to take the inexperienced Linh on a temporary basis. Also in the house are servants – groundskeeper Mr. Chau (Kien An) and cook Mrs. Ngo (Phi Phung). This once thriving plantation now holds dark memories – of a violent past and of the late Madame Camille (Svitlana Kovalenko) – the Captain’s wife and the tragedy surrounding their baby. When Laurent is injured, he is left in the care of Linh, and they fall in love. But the ghost of Madame Camille, who haunts the grounds – won’t have it.
Writer/director Derek Nguyen does a fine job of capturing the exquisite beauty of his locations (it was shot in his homeland of Vietnam). Sweeping shots of the vast forest and the frightening intimacy in the dark corners of the mansion – the film always looks good.
The score is intricate and matches the sweeping feel of the camerawork. In other words, so much of the technical side of The Housemaid is something to be envious of and to aspire to.
Where the problems come in? The writing. This is where my long harangue about Big Business above – comes into play. The piece is terribly unfocused. There’s too much going on. You’ve got ghosts, zombie-ghosts, things that go bump in the night, epic period romance and the biggest distraction of all – terrible soap opera melodrama.
At one point, an old acquaintance of the Captain shows up unexpectedly in the form of snobby Madeleine (Rosie Fellner). Her entire presence is pointless – unless you count one of the very last scenes and the mention of Madeleine as a way to make the characters stop and say, “hmmmm, I don’t know.” Otherwise, her main action in the film is to be a raving bitch and her attempts to discredit Linh are cookie-cutter, melodrama nonsense which we’ve seen 300 times in any number of other films and television shows. In fact, this character’s arrival is what precipitates the downfall of this film – which until that point, I was enjoying. A major misstep indeed!
As with almost all films of this ilk – there is, of course – a big secret which will be revealed at the film’s conclusion. And that seems reasonable, considering that the backstory of Madame Camille was almost exactly that of Nicole Kidman’s character in The Others. I don’t feel as though the reveal was properly established. Sure, we get a few repeat shots of the clues we should have picked up on earlier in the film but they didn’t feel like enough. So the payoff we’re given isn’t mind-blowing, nor is it bad. It’s pretty middle of the ground. And it leaves several things unexplained. I won’t spoil it, so I’ll just throw out this terribly vague question: If this was what was really happening, then how does the filmmaker account for other things which the characters and the audience experienced? One loose end (mentioned above – regarding Madeleine) is “explained”, but there were several other bits which don’t add up.
And there’s also the issue of the story having its cake and eating it too. There are a couple of explanations at the film’s conclusion, but it starts to feel somewhat convoluted and multiple things are revealed. It feels like too much and once again – unfocused. You can’t have it both ways.
There is a romantic angle to the film and while both actors are attractive and it’s not a problem to watch them – the multiple love scenes start to feel over-the-top and frankly boring. It felt as if there might have been a lull in the story, and so Nguyen said, “Let’s throw in another love scene!”
The performances were all pretty strong. As Linh, Kate Nhung has to hit a bevy of emotions and hit them hard she does. She cries at the drop of a hat. And she’s equally adept at making us believe her subservience as she is when things in the household begin to change in her favor.
As the Captain, Jean Michel-Richaud is properly handsome and commanding as the military man who can’t get past his grief, and so desperately needs love and companionship from Linh. I think it was a good performance overall, but I felt that it was a bit underplayed. That can be forgiven, seeing as how the character is always in control – but a few slips into more human emotion would have been welcome.
But as Mrs. Ngo, Phi Phung offers some much-needed comic relief. She’s full of wisdom for young Linh and her reactions as Linh’s position in the household shifts – are priceless. Just keep an eye out in one of the many dinner scenes, where (as their love is blossoming) the Captain invites Linh to join him at the table. Mrs. Ngo is the most fun character in the film.
The film has too many little endings – when it felt like all that needed to be said, was said. But it just continues on and on. A good trim would have done wonders.
And the Christine-inspired car scene – sadly did not work. It was almost laughable and felt out of place in the whole of the film.
A beautifully shot piece with lavish sets and locations – The Handmaid stumbles far too many times, mostly because it throws everything but the kitchen sink into the swirling mix. Unfocused, it’s a prime example of not knowing when to pull back and when to give all you have to the best you have – and not spreading yourself too thin.
Again: “Why can’t you focus?”
The Housemaid is in both Vietnamese (with English subtitles) and English.
At press, there is no information regarding a wider release.