Guest reviewer Lee Broughton offers a look at writer-director Derek Nguyen’s intriguing debut feature, a finely observed supernatural gothic chiller-cum-illicit period love story, set on a French plantation in Vietnam towards the end of the First Indochina War. It’s also a spooky melodrama with a difference. As such, this well-acted, handsomely staged and stylishly shot Vietnamese-South Korean co-production is able to offset its scenes of uncanny terror and interracial romance with scenarios that pass comment on both the mechanics of colonialism and the physical violence and psychological damage that necessarily accompany the colonial process.
Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD
2016 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 105 min. / Co Hau Gai / Street Date, 19 Feb 2018 / £12.99
Starring: Nhung Kate, Jean-Michel Richaud, Kim Xuan, Rosie Fellner, Phi Phung, Kien An, Svitlana Kovalenko.
Cinematography: Sam Chase
Film Editor: Stephane Gauger
Production Designer: Jose Mari (Joji) Pamintuan
Original Music: Jerome Leroy
Produced by Timothy Linh Bui, Choi Yuno, Vu Quynh Ha, Nguyen The Phong
Written and Directed by Derek Nguyen
When her family are killed in an air raid during the final years of the First Indochina War, young Linh (Kate Nhung) becomes a displaced person who must travel far on foot in search of work in order to survive. Reduced to a state of total desperation, she seeks work at the now non-operational Sa-Cat rubber plantation. The plantation has just three staff members, Mrs Han (Kim Xuan) the head housekeeper, Mrs Ngo (Phi Phung) the cook and Mr Chau (Kien An) the groundsman. The locals refuse to work there as they associate the plantation with colonial atrocities and are convinced that many restless spirits roam the surrounding woods. Circumstances thus dictate that Mrs Han take Linh on as a trainee housemaid. The plantation house is a dark and oppressive place that is prone to power cuts and Linh is told that the sobbing-like noise that she hears in the night is produced by the ghosts of Madame Camille (Svitlana Kovalenko) and her small child.
Camille was the lady of the house who drowned herself in a nearby lake in a state of despair while she waited for her husband, Sebastien (Jean-Michel Richaud), to return home from active service in the war. Still haunted by his loss, Sebastien is suitably aloof and distant with his staff until the fateful night that he is attacked by revolutionaries and suffers a serious gunshot wound. Linh and Mrs Ngo wilfully disobey Mrs Han’s explicit orders when they elect to administer a local herbal medicine and perform a mystical rite in order to save Sebastien’s life. Some combination of their interference in Sebastien’s fate, the content of the mystical rite and the transgression of cultural boundaries that their actions represent results in Camille’s spirit really rising from the grave. Furthermore, when Linh and Sebastien’s subsequent nurse-patient relationship turns into a full-blown love affair, Camille’s presence grows stronger and her actions become murderous.
As a literary form, the gothic encompassed a wide and diverse spectrum of stories. One end of the spectrum was host to ‘feminine’ texts that featured melodramatic romances set within oppressive mansion houses and castles while the opposite end was host to ‘masculine’ texts that featured more determinedly supernatural and horrific scenarios that were set within equally grand and spooky abodes. When gothic films began being produced, filmmakers took their initial inspiration from this divergent body of source texts. As such, the gothic remains a tradition and a genre that can be relatively difficult to characterise.
Thanks to teachers as diverse as the Bronte sisters, Universal Studios, Screaming Lord Sutch, Hammer Films and Barnabas Collins to name just a few of many, we have learnt to instinctively detect gothic intent whenever we encounter it. But Fred Botting (1996) has suggested that actually defining a fixed set of conventions that would guarantee a text’s absolute right to be classified as a gothic work is virtually impossible. While that’s undoubtedly true, interested parties will be pleased to note that writer-director Derek Nguyen has deftly woven so many finely observed elements of both the feminine and the masculine gothic into The Housemaid‘s narrative that the show plays like a proverbial masterclass in how to judiciously cram an inordinate number of the gothic’s most recognisable signifiers and tropes into just one film.
Set in 1953, the film opens with Linh going about her duties in Sebastien’s French-styled colonial mansion. It’s a rambling and gloomy house that is a perfect setting for a gothic tale. Linh lights an oil lamp and — in true gothic fashion — she begins to navigate the mansion’s dark corridors in order to take Sebastien’s tea to him. She feels Camille’s presence as she enters a large landing but before she can react Sebastien’s bedroom door is slammed shut by an unseen force and his death cries are heard on the soundtrack. Linh is subsequently interviewed by the police and she tells her story leading up to Sebastien’s death as a flashback.
The storm that batters Sa-Cat on the day that Linh first arrives there provides a suitably foreboding indication of the dark and disturbing tale that is about to unfold. The early part of Linh’s story is used to highlight the strict lines of demarcation that exist between the French colonialists and the Vietnamese subalterns. Mrs Han sternly warns Linh that Sa-Cat is run like a French estate rather than a Vietnamese one. When Mrs Ngo provides Linh with a homemade Eastern remedy to heal her blistered and bleeding feet she confesses to being a herbalist and a witch, which links her to the region’s pre-modern period and puts her at odds with the sense of modernity that the French have initiated by force. Linh must be deferential at all times and is not allowed to look directly at Sebastien or his guests. The Vietnamese revolutionaries are routinely cursed by the film’s French characters who also deride regular Vietnamese citizens by casually referring to them as “primitives”.
At one point Mrs Ngo informs Linh that hundreds of Vietnamese workers were brutally slain on the plantation. Recruited from all over the country with false promises of good wages, the workers died as a result of the violent whippings and the physical and sexual abuse that the plantation’s overseers routinely meted out before burying their hapless victims in unmarked mass graves beneath the plantation’s rubber trees. These overseers were actually Vietnamese citizens too who were working under orders that had been issued by their French superiors. As such, their actions are a reminder that, for colonialism to work, locals who are willing to align themselves with the invading power and carry out its bidding at the expense of their countrymen are an essential element in the colonial process. As Mrs Ngo describes the horrors of plantation life, Nguyen presents shots of the defunct plantation’s now empty work spaces and disused out buildings while the sounds of cries and whippings are heard on the soundtrack.
Nguyen doesn’t show the described atrocities on screen at this point in the film and he doesn’t really need to in order to make his point. Michael Rothberg’s (2009) work on what he dubs ‘multidirectional memory’ suggests that filmmakers can skilfully use ‘memories’ of violence and suffering that are associated with one time period and location in order to mobilize ‘memories’ of violence and suffering that belong to a different time period and location. By using language that evokes the shared public memory of the plantation system, slavery and the abuses suffered historically by African Americans in the southern states of America, Nguyen is able to ensure that his viewers immediately appreciate that these Vietnamese subaltern workers have suffered in a comparable manner. The film’s narrative is thus ripe for the emergence of scenarios that deal with the ‘return of the repressed’ in a number of different and quite startling ways.
With the film’s colonial milieu vividly established, Nguyen then goes on to do a commendable job of balancing The Housemaid‘s supernatural and romance-themed story strands. There’s a chance that viewers who have a particularly strong preference for one or the other may start shuffling a little in those sections of the film where the focus on their favoured strand is temporarily dialled down a bit — but I seriously doubt it. Both strands are very well executed and both strands remain true to the key masculine and feminine gothic tropes that they draw inspiration from. And both strands feature some very effective shock revelations that completely pull the rug out from under the viewer’s feet.
So while an early supernatural set piece might bring to mind the kind of shocks encountered in Takashi Shimizu’s classic Japanese horror show Ju-on: The Grudge (2002), much of the rest of the film’s supernatural elements take their lead from the gothic tradition and Western horror films. Indeed, while the phantom lover rising from a watery grave has been a fairly popular trope in East Asian horror films such as Kuei Chih-Hung’s Hex (1980), Camille doesn’t really fit that closely with this localised tradition. She looks and acts more like the dreaded eponymous spirit encountered in James Watkins’ The Woman in Black (2012).
Nguyen cleverly uses the gothic mise-en-scene found within the mansion’s labyrinthine interior to create a sense of unease even when nothing of a supernatural nature is occurring. Robert Wise used judiciously placed statues and busts in order to fleetingly prompt the subconscious impression that an otherworldly third party might be present in some of The Haunting‘s (1963) incidental scenes. In The Housemaid, Nguyen employs the figures depicted in the many strange portraits that hang in Sebastien’s mansion in a similar and equally effective manner. Interestingly, the mansion house’s staffing problems serve to remind us of the similarly understaffed mansion house that appears in Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others (2001).
The Housemaid‘s feminine gothic elements are pleasingly presented too. At one stage Linh becomes an analogue of the ‘investigative’ gothic heroine when she inadvertently uncovers tools of oppression, torture and execution as she goes about her duties in one of the plantation’s out buildings. Similarly she finds personal files relating to the plantation’s former workers as she goes about her work in Sebastien’s office. Elsewhere in the film Nguyen has Linh cycle through a number of variant takes on the ‘imperilled’ gothic heroine type to good effect. Echoes of intrigue-laden gothic melodramas like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) reverberate throughout The Housemaid‘s running time and Linh eventually finds herself placed in the position of the new lady of the house. Linh’s elevation to a new social position occurs towards the end of the show’s romance related narrative strand. This strand is allowed to develop in an unforced manner once it’s underway and we’re glad when Linh and Sebastien are able to overcome the problems that they encounter and express their newfound state of happiness.
The Housemaid‘s romance related narrative strand plays like a period love story that unfolds within a mise-en-scene that is chockfull of pleasing period decor and details that we are happy to accept as being historically accurate. The show’s daylight scenes tend to feature some delicate yet striking colours that are neatly cast in the kind of charming shades that we’ve come to associate with East Asian films such as Wisit Sasanatieng’s Thai action-melodrama Tears of the Black Tiger (2000). And it’s all captured and pleasingly framed by some consistently excellent cinematography. Jerome Leroy’s eloquent music veers between gentle piano-led pieces that underscore the poignancy of Linh and Sebastien’s interracial love affair and the kind of screeching ascending strings and very loud orchestral stabs that enhance the boo! moments found in Western supernatural horror films like the Insidious (2010-18) series.
The Housemaid is also a very well acted film. Kim Xuan impresses as the stern and authoritarian head housekeeper and Jean-Michel Richaud does enough to convince us that his distant plantation owning military man is starting to soften enough to see his Vietnamese employees in a more sympathetic light. But the show belongs to Kate Nhung, whose expressive facial features and studied body language successfully allow her to take Linh through a wide range of highly emotional states of mind and dramatically demanding scenarios. As such, Derek Nguyen’s admirable debut feature is a smart looking, compelling and rather clever show that should prove to be an involving and satisfying viewing experience for fans of the gothic tradition, superior supernatural horror shows and East Asian cinema more generally.
Picture quality on Eureka Entertainment’s Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD of The Housemaid is excellent. Many of the film’s interior scenes are dimly lit but the image onscreen remains detailed and sharp. Equally, the appealing shades of colour that are present in the show’s daytime scenes are rendered boldly onscreen. The presentation’s sound quality is equally strong with Jerome Leroy’s music coming through loud and clear. A mixture of Vietnamese and English is spoken by The Housemaid‘s characters and Eureka Entertainment’s presentation of the film features two handy subtitle options: ‘partial’ English subtitles (for the Vietnamese language sequences only) or ‘full’ English subtitles (for both the Vietnamese and English language sequences). The only extra feature is a subtitled theatrical trailer.
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: original theatrical trailer
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 2, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson