The Housemaid (Cô Haû Gaí)

Vietnam (2016) Dir. Derek Nguyen

First things first, this debut from Vietnamese-American filmmaker Derek Nguyen is not a remake of the steamy 1960/2010 Korean drama(s) of the same name. Instead, it is a deceptive film that runs the gamut of horror/doomed romance tropes and conventions before pulling one final ace from up its sleeve.

Set in Vietnam in 1953 during the First Indochinese War, young Vietnamese woman Linh (Nhung Kate) arrives at the house of a rubber plantation owned by French Captain Sebastian Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud). Barefoot, just the clothes on her back and her family all dead, officious housekeeper Mrs. Han (Kim Xuan) reluctantly gives Linh a trail as housemaid.

Linh joins three other staff members – Mrs. Han, groundskeeper Mr. Chau (Kien An) and cook Mrs. Ngo (Phi Phung). The latter explains to Linh how the house is haunted by spirits of workers killed by their strict French bosses and, most dangerous of all, the ghost of Sebastian’s late wife Camille (Svitlana Kovalenko). Unfortunately for Linh, when she and Sebastian begin an affair, strange thing start to happen at the house.

Anyone who has watched any Thai horror films will find a similar vibe present in The Housemaid, in terms of presentation and the reliance on tried and trusted plot devices, including the vengeful, long black-haired female spirit. It might be tempting to suggest Nguyen has set the horror franchise back a few years by recycling this tired staple but he does in fact have something a bit more subtle to share instead.

The period setting allows Nguyen to get address patriotic-based issues with regard to the treatment of his people by the French during and after World War II. Again, this isn’t new as Korea has used the Japanese occupancy of its country as the backdrop for a couple of creepy films, but given the many French films about the treatment of the Nazis towards them, this makes for some interesting balance.    

Nguyen actually opens this film with Linh discovering the bloodied corpse of Sebastian in his bed, then being grilled by the police as part of the investigation, the whole drama being revealed in flashback. Linh cuts a pathetic figure walking in the pouring rain, dwarfed by the towering gates and vast driveway of the mansion grounds and Mrs. Han’s surly demeanour is not a particularly welcoming sight.

Stories of aggrieved workers rising from the grave scaring off prospective employees and an insane dead wife making her presence felt whenever anyone gets close to her widower husband leave a lot for Linh to get her around. When Sebastian finally puts in an appearance, he has been shot in an ambush and Linh is assigned the duty of playing nurse.

Before you can say “inevitable romance”, a palpable frisson generates between Linh and Sebastian just as Mrs. Han is called back to Singapore for a family emergency, leaving Linh in charge. But someone – or something – isn’t happy with this arrangement and isn’t shy about letting Linh know about it in the most terrifyingly unsubtle manner possible.

And this isn’t a reference to Sebastian’s stuck-up fiancée Madeline (Rosie Fellner) suddenly arriving from France and more underhanded in trying to get Linh removed from the house. This subplot is the weakest of the entire film as it one can read its trajectory from the very moment the finely attired Madeline appears on screen with her superior attitude but it does provide a nice final twist in the final act.

The film is a veritable checklist of tropes and plot devices we’ve seen ad infinitum but as alluded to earlier, Nguyen uses them as a symbol of the oppressive regime his country was under. Linh represents Vietnam but being female may seem like a cliché too far, it does ensure immediate sympathy for her position, signifying the abusive treatment all women suffered in these situations,.

But the politics behind Linh’s arc is only half the story – Mrs. Han’s stringent attitude is more than being an old school authoritarian as is the equally stern Mr. Chau, a man with a dark secret of his own indicative of those who make snap decision about which side their bread is buttered on. Nguyen may place this secondary to the main ghost story but does get some mileage out the reality-based horror as effectively as the supernatural aspect.

You can practically set your watch to the beats of the jump scares but they are handled with competence and care, playing enough with the visuals and the atmosphere to make it feel fresh. The manifestation of the ghostly Madame Camille is a mix of European gothic and the J-Horror apparition which gives her a unique presence whilst her methods of intimidation aren’t limited to being spooky – she comes bearing weapons too.

However, the most chilling scene is actually a sadly real one, when one of Sebastian’s army mate tries to rape Linh; her screams of desperation as she tries to fight her larger assailant off pierce the night air and make the blood run cold. It’s easy to dismiss a spectral haunting as fiction, rape is another issue, and Nguyen plays this card perfectly as part of his political narrative.

Co-produced by Korea’s CJ Entertainment means the production values are very high, complimenting the luscious cinematograph that bring Nguyen’s interesting ideas alive and spook the audience. The direction is assured with odd flashes of invention, which also shows in the performances, boasting a confident and alluring turn from Nhung Kate who should see her star in ascension after this.

Don’t be put off by the derivative content in The Housemaid, the twist in the final act is its redemption, turning everything on its head whilst putting it all into perspective. It’s rather ironic that Nguyen pulls this off with an old trick in a film riddled with hackneyed material, which is its genius. A satisfying by-the-numbers affair that manages to reach beyond its genre limitations.