The Housemaid (2018)
Written and Directed by Derek Nguyen
Starring Kate Nhung, Jean-Michel Richaud, Kim Xuan, Kien An, Phi Phung, Svitlana Kovalenko and Rosie Fellner
An IFC Midnight Release
(All images courtesy IFC Midnight)
“Sa-Cat is a place of death.”
In 1950’s Vietnam, surrounded by a forest of real and metaphorical death, a beautiful mansion decays. Endless acres of rubber trees literally drip blood as a forgein occupation nears its end. And every person (living or dead) on Sa-Cat plantation is doomed to play their part.
In THE HOUSEMAID, Writer-Director Derek Ngyen grafts the sturdy tropes of Gothic revenge tragedy to the tangled history of French colonialism in Vietnam. While staying true to the blood-splattered tropes of the Gothic, Ngyen’s first feature film creates a unique environment for these familiar elements to follow their preordained paths.
THE HOUSEMAID begins in 1953, one year before the defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu that led to France’s withdrawal from Vietnam. Linh (Nhung Kate) sits in a police station. Questioned by police officers Guy (Leon Bown) and Bao (Linh Son Nguyen), the young woman relates the path that leads to her discovery of the bloody corpse of her employer, Captain Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud).
As she begins her story, we see Linh trudging through driving rain to the gates of a magnificent (albeit decaying) mansion. Once this house was the center of a sprawling rubber plantation. Now Sa-Cat is home to a handful of servants working for the widowed Captain Laurent, reclusively mourning his dead wife and infant son. Driven from her home by war, Linh seeks work as a housemaid.
Linh becomes enmeshed in daily life at Sa-Cat. Imperious housekeeper Ms. Han (Kim Xuan), garrulous cook Mrs. Ngo (Phi Phung), and maintenance man Mr. Chau (Kien An) welcome the added labor Linh provides. Like the servants of the House of Usher, they’re fighting a losing battle on multiple fronts in service to the Captain. But no one can escape the pressures of events in the present – or the demands of the past. Linh may appear to be a simple country girl, but she also is also burdened with fulfilling the obligations and wishes of others.
What Works in THE HOUSEMAID
Sam Chase’s cinematography and production design of Jose Mari Pamintuan create an atmosphere of dust, decay and rot you can almost feel through the screen. The blood-soaked history of the estate and its influence on the present comes to life just by showing a finger sliding along a dusty banister. Visual effects by Thierry Nguyen and the special makeup effects by Brad Greenwood add to the tactile creepiness, and Jerome Leroy’s score is haunting, lush, and wistful.
Director Derek Ngyen does a good job maintaining a plausible sense of misdirection until the final revelations. The viewer knows that whatever haunts Sa-Cat arises from events in the past. But along with the haunted residents, we don’t realize which threat poses the most danger – or its true motives – until the very end.
For me, the revelations at the movie’s end made sense and fit with most of what we’ve seen before. However, we don’t find out enough about some of the characters actions in the past to make sense of their ultimate fates
This is not the case for Ms. Han and Mr. Chau. Chau is proud to recount his past as an overseer on the estate; Ms. Han’s role in tracking down and punishing escaping workers is illustrated in flashbacks. But for the character who meets the most bloody and gruesome fate, there is too much Tell and not enough Show. We don’t see (or hear) enough about the past to put alongside the present. But we see and understand this dilemma for Linh; she is both a strong character with agency – and a woman acting out of obligation and duty to the desires of others. We don’t get that insight for another major character.
And on a minor point, I would’ve ditched the subplot involving Sebastien’s fiancée Madeline (Rosie Fellner) . Besides having a French identity mismatched with a British accent, this selfish, one note plot point of a character exists only to create jealously in Linh, then run off and die in a particularly non-terrifying manner. The screen time spent on that story could’ve been used to flesh out the past of Sa-Cat and the characters we spend most of the movie with.
In the end, THE HOUSEMAID is an interesting journey, taking the Vengeful Ghost story along a road I haven’t travelled before. Horror fans will appreciate how it uses the hallmarks of the genre to create a story with style and atmosphere.
THE HOUSEMAID will be available on demand and in select theaters February 16.
For more information, visit IFC Midnight.