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The Housemaid (Movie Review)

The Housemaid (Movie Review)
02.16.2018by: Cody Hamman
8 10

PLOT: A young woman's hiring as a housemaid at a rubber plantation in 1950s Vietnam seems to stir up the restless spirits of past plantation workers and the landowner's late wife.

REVIEW: Writer/director Derek Nguyen's supernatural thriller THE HOUSEMAID is a film that might have been just as effective if it hadn't featured any genre elements at all. Even as it is, it functions primarily as a drama, with an orphaned young woman named Linh (Kate Nhung) landing a job as a housemaid at a French plantation in Vietnam and proceeding to fall into a romantic relationship with the landowner, Captain Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud) - a man who happens to be engaged to a woman who's living in France. When Laurent's fiancée inevitably shows up at the plantation, you know it's going to cause some trouble for him and Linh.

This story plays out in a fascinating place and time in history; 1953 Vietnam, a decade before the United States Armed Forces became fully engaged in a war in that country, but at which time there was already a war being waged there, between the French Union forces and Vietnamese forces seeking independence from the French Empire. I really know nothing about this part of history (the main reason I even know the French had plantations in Vietnam is APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX), so I was intrigued by the small pieces of information given here.

If you're not inclined to be entertained by the story of a Vietnamese housemaid being romanced by a wealthy Frenchman in the 1950s, you might find THE HOUSEMAID tough to sit through, as the majority of the 104 minute running time is dedicated to that side of the plot. The drama far outweighs the horror element. Of course, there is the opening scene that gives away the outcome of the romance, so maybe the promise that this is going to end in bloody tragedy will help you get through all the lovey dovey stuff. Personally, I spent most of the movie thinking the opening scene was completely unnecessary, but when the story gets back around to that moment I realized Nguyen had a very good reason for starting the film out the way it does. The final act benefits from that bit of "flash forward" storytelling.

The horror scenes felt like they were sprinkled in to add a little extra flavor, but they do provide some nice visuals and a good amount of creepiness. Linh starts having nightmares and scary visions soon after she moves into the plantation, and for good reason. She has heard the stories about the hundreds of workers who were beaten to death at the plantation during its dark history, their bodies buried among the rubber trees, enriching the soil. She knows about the place where runaway workers were imprisoned, some starved to death. She has heard the story about Laurent's former wife drowning their baby and killing herself. It's not surprising she would be disturbed while staying at this place, nor is it surprising that strange things would happen at a place where such terrible events have occurred.

Linh sees things like monster hands bursting out of a crib; the ominous figure of Laurent's late wife, who has crawled out of her watery grave; ghouls walking among the trees; human remains strewn across the forest floor. The longer she stays at the plantation, the more the spirits step up their game. They start causing bodily harm.

Nguyen does a great job presenting the horror elements, and in fact the entire film is incredibly well crafted. This is a very impressive debut for the filmmaker, one that establishes him as a director to keep an eye on in the future. With this film he proves that he can make drama captivating, and that he can make horror properly unnerving. He could go anywhere from here, and it will be interesting to see where he chooses to go.

THE HOUSEMAID is set to get the remake treatment, which is a fact that weighed heavily on my mind while watching this film. I can easily imagine a remake diluting the story and dropping in a lot more jump scares, but hopefully that won't be the case. THE HOUSEMAID has more on its mind than just saying "Boo!" to the audience, and a remake shouldn't reduce it to that level. But if it does, at least we'll always have Nguyen's film to appreciate.

Extra Tidbit: IFC Midnight is releasing THE HOUSEMAID in theatres and on VOD on February 16th.

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