The Housemaid, originally titled Cô Haû Gaí, is a Vietnamese horror/romance with a quite interesting distribution history, due to which I was compelled to check it out.
The movie was made in 2016, released the same year in Vietnam and South Korea, and received almost universal acclaimed. However, and for no apparent reason other than distribution rights, The Housemaid made it to the US only in 2017 and was, finally, distributed worldwide in 2018: thus I got the opportunity to buy the Blu-Ray (for pretty cheap) and check this film out.
Set in 1953 and located in a rubber plantation in French Indochina, the movie centres on Linh (played by stunning actress Kate Nhung), an orphaned girl who is hired to be a housemaid – who could have guessed it, right? – in the house in the middle of the aforementioned plantation. There, she falls in love with the French landowner, causing a jealous and vengeful entity to start haunting her.
Straight from the get-go, hence from the first sequence after the opening titles, the atmosphere that The Housemaid was able to create with just a few shots stunned me: the locations, combined with the constant rain, immerse the viewer into the environment. Besides, the cinematography, filled with calm and long takes, is outstanding and very pleasant to look at.
However, what I do believe will please most viewers – therefore the main reason why I’d recommend this movie to everybody – is the very “mainstream” way of crafting frightening scenes. After an appreciably slow build-up, The Housemaid resorts on jump-scares and cliché techniques that reminded me a lot of The Woman in Black (2012). As much as the scares in the movie are formulaic and conventional, they’re also well-executed and never feel forced nor unnecessarily exaggerated.
Yet, the four main characters, portrayed by actors coming from four different countries (this is an interesting trivia right there!), are fleshed out and compelling, with their diverse personalities and ways to react to various situations.
Overall, the way The Housemaid equally draws from Hitchcock and the clammy scares of Japanese horror movies like Ju-on: The Grudge (2002), is what makes it rather unique and easy to watch.
The director, Derek Nguyen whips up a spectral stew of past atrocities and present-day love stories. Lush, verdant exteriors — vibrantly photographed by Sam Chase — define a plantation where, according to Sebastien’s garrulous cook, hundreds of Vietnamese workers were brutalised: the movie’s invocation of slavery and Holocaust-like imagery had the potential to set it apart from many flicks belonging to the same genre.
However, my biggest issue with The Housemaid is that what could have been extremely disturbing and horrifying, in fact feels overshadowed and muted by a soap opera like centre. This isn’t per se a negative feature: plenty of Asian films like to indulge on melodramatic traits and that’s something a Western viewer like me should learn to cope with.
Nonetheless, the melodrama here feels forced and underdeveloped, since the film had already enough material, story-wise, to focus one. As a result, the piece is terribly unfocused; in other words, there’s too much going on: ghosts, zombie-ghosts, scary things that show up in the night, epic period romance, genocide-like messages and much more! Restraining all of that in one 105-minute-long flick ruins the pacing and causes the story to struggle with the development of the many subplots.
Yet, the ending was a tad bit underwhelming, in my opinion. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad ending per se, the problem is that it doesn’t fully resolve any of the subplots brought up throughout the film, thus it feels unsatisfying and disappointing.
All in all, I would say The Housemaid is a rather good and enthralling horror film from the Vietnamese cinema industry, which it’s safe to say we’re not very familiar with, therefore it makes it at least worth checking out.
The Housemaid (Cô Haû Gaí) 7/10
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My review is also available on IMDb – The Housemaid