Director: Derek Nguyen
Writer: Derek Nguyen
Stars: Kate Nhung, Jean-Michel Richaud, Kim Xuan
Runtime: 105 minutes
Country: Vietnam | South Korea
Derek Nguyen’s The Housemaid is a beautiful homage to the gothic horror genre, which draws on Vietnam’s history to add depth to the narrative. From creepy housekeepers to tortured ghosts to an innocent protagonist wandering through dimly candlelit corridors, The Housemaid uses every trope in the book to great effect. While the film does occasionally stray into cliche, the beauty of the photography and the talent of its cast make The Housemaid an enjoyable ride underscored with a serious historical note.
1953; the French colonial territory of Indochina. The sole survivor of an attack on her village, orphaned protagonist Linh walks on bloodied feet to the disused rubber plantation of Sa Cat, looking for work. Under the watchful eye of Mrs Han the housekeeper, Linh settles in as Sa Cat’s new housemaid. Once the landowner, French soldier Laurent arrives, the two begin an unsettling relationship in which the lines of power are unclear. As the brutal history of the plantation emerges through flashbacks, it becomes apparent that the ghost that terrorises the grounds has every reason to seek vengeance. “Sa Cat is a house of death” as the warning goes, but it’s also a place of secrets, and every character has something to hide.
The cast are fantastic. Kate Nhung is perfect as Lihn, seamlessly moving from vulnerable serving girl to firm mistress of the house (and beyond). Jean-Michel Richaud plays Laurent, the French officer who owns the plantation, and whose injury places him into the hands of our heroine. Inscrutable and unpredictable, Richaud is perfect in the role, but is nevertheless often overshadowed by the female staff. Phi Phung is brilliant as cook and sometime witch Mrs. Ngo, while Kim Xuan steals the show as stern, matriarchal housekeeper Mrs. Han.
Visually, the film is beautiful. Dark, dreamy shots shots show off the plantation in slow motion, the forest and the architecture of the house creating a foreboding atmosphere. The colour grading is noticeably excellent — each scene shines like a gem — and certain motifs throughout the film really stand out. A shot of the ghost, wreathed in black lace, walking peacefully into a lake is gloriously creepy; Sa Cat itself is gorgeous and imposing, the manor’s delicate details eerie when viewed through the context of its violent past.
The weakest aspect of the film is the execution of its narrative. Without spoiling the plot, a revelation near the end of the film seemed entirely unexpected and rushed; after over an hour of carefully atmospheric build-up, the turn feels sudden and breaks the film’s spell. A good twist ending should be both surprising and inevitable, but there aren’t enough clues along the way, leaving the ending feeling unsatisfactory, abstruse rather than ambiguous. For this reason The Housemaid is best viewed as an atmospheric mood piece; it’s a joy to look at, but the plot leaves some things to be desired.
Despite this, The Housemaid is a intriguing work of cinema, skilfully balancing the melodrama of horror with the serious nature of Vietnam’s history. For lovers of gothic horror, this film ticks all the boxes.
The Housemaid is released in the UK in Dual Format (DVD and Blu-ray) on February 19th, 2018.