The Housemaid is a ghost story told against the backdrop of a war-torn country filled with horrors very much of the real world. The setting is French-occupied Vietnam in 1953. As the film opens, a young woman, the housemaid of the title, stumbles upon her dead boss. Whether he’s been murdered or killed himself is left purposefully unclear.
A framing device places this woman, Linh (a poised, committed Kate Nhung), in a police interview as local law enforcement quiz her about what happened. The movie then jumps back to when she was originally hired and spends the next hour-and-a-bit looping all the way back around again, never returning to that room until Linh’s story has been told.
As it happens, she’s rocked up to the pretty but desolate Sa-cat, with feet bloodied from the journey, looking for a job. After being taken in on a temporary basis, Linh discovers the house’s hidden secrets. She’s literally told at one stage “Sa-cat is a place of death,” but due to desperation and a budding romance with the man of the house, Linh stays on.
Before too long, the spectre of his dead wife starts appearing in hallways and pretty soon the bodies are quite literally hitting the floor.
The Housemaid has a very singular vision. Written and directed by Derek Nguyen, a long-time producer who worked on Buster’s Mal Heart, the film is a standard issue ghost story. But there’s an elegance to it, a classiness that elevates it above its similarly-themed contemporaries. The historical context lends the story a weight that contributes heavily to its already eerie atmosphere.
Likewise, the spectre of real life horror looms large alongside an actual spectre that would give the Woman In Black herself a run for her money. This lady of the house also menaces a manor and has an affection for bodies of water. And bodies in general. Outside its doors, 1953 Vietnam is still war-torn and separated by class divides. Linh speaks of bombing and air raids as though they are normal occurrences.
The Housemaid is very richly textured, with a lot of deep greens utilised to give the movie an earthy tone. The lavish, expansive manor in which most of the action takes place — run with military precision, and “like a French estate,” not a Vietnamese one — is both gorgeous and dilapidated. People are just as monstrous in this estate as the ghosts haunting it.
As for that ghost, she’s well-designed and definitely mostly portrayed by a real person onscreen, which helps enormously. The film is very tactile in general, with effective and well-considered sound design. The few moments of clunky CGI don’t derail the story, and the cinematography is just as lush as the trees encircling Sa-cat. Nhung, the focal point of the entire thing, is a likeable screen presence and her Linh has real grit and determination.
Overall, The Housemaid is a nifty film, with just enough twists and turns to keep you guessing until the end. The ghosts are nicely realised and the characters properly fleshed out. An American remake is in the works, with Nguyen signed on as a producer. But, on this evidence, it hardly seems necessary.
Catch The Housemaid in select theaters, on VOD, and
via digital platforms from Feb. 16, 2018
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Derek Nguyen
Writer(s): Derek Nguyen
Stars: Kate Nhung, Jean-Michel Richaud, Kim Xuan, Svitlana Kovalenko
Release Date: February 16th, 2018 (select theaters, VOD, digital)
Studio/ Production Co: CJ Entertainment
Language: English, Vietnamese
Length: 105 minutes