Thursday, February 15, 2018

Women in Horror: The Housemaid (2016)

* spoilers *

In 1953 French occupied Vietnam, Linh walks from her village to the Sa-Cat rubber plantation for employment. Few people work there due its bloody history and rumors of ghosts haunting the property. Mrs. Han takes her in on a trial basis and she works in the eerily empty house, serving French Captain Sebastien Laurent. As time goes on, Linh uncovers a dark secret: the Captain's wife Camille killed her baby and then herself while the Captain was at war. Linh and her mentor Bao suspect that Camille's spirit has been awakened as eerie incidents and unexplained deaths happen all over the property.

The Housemaid is a gothic romance that centers around the French occupation of Vietnam in an unexpected way. Linh has no family and no other prospects around her village. She walked for miles for this job opportunity that she could have easily been turned away from. This illustrates the difficult life of the typical Vietnamese person at the time and contrasts it with life on the plantation with technology (cars and electricity), plentiful food, rich clothing, and power over others. Mrs. Han runs the house with an iron fist and expects to be obeyed, an atypical role for a Vietnamese woman during this era. Bao has a lower rank in the household, so she opts to keep quiet and do her job despite her differing opinions. Mr. Chau oversees the plantation workers, using intimidation and violence to keep them in line. It seems like cutting off a limb and throwing out a clumsy or slow worker is just a typical day. Mrs. Han and Mr. Chau in particular adopt the French view of other Vietmanese people, especially if they are poor, that they are disposable. All of their everyday lives are thrown into chaos after Bao performs a ritual to save Captain Laurent from a gunshot wound.

Linh nurses Captain Laurent back to health. Predictably, they fall in love and have a torrid romance only half heartedly hidden from the rest of the household. The Captain is shockingly not a horrible person. He saves her from being raped by a colleague who views her as an object despite the repercussions at his job and from society in general. I thought his nice guy act would end when his English fiancee came to stay, but he rejected her and treated his relationship with Linh as something real and sustainging. Because their relationship upends social norms, people from all levels of society treat Linh badly. The upper class see her as passing fancy or sex worker while the lower class see her as conniving, trading sex for better treatment. Bao is the only one who clearly disapproves, but seems to be the only one to care about Linh getting hurt and being exploited in this unequal power dynamic. This part of the film could be right out of a steamy historical romance film rather than a horror film.

The ending of the film is my favorite part. While Linh and the Captain's romance is going on, all characters except Bao are either attacked or killed by a ghostly figure (presumably Camille) and her army of zombies made up of dead plantation workers. Linh uncovers the real cruelty behind the plantation's past, where people treated even worse than the present. People were enslaved and then executed if found trying to run away. Mrs. Han, Mr. Chau, the Captain's fiancee, and finally the Captain are killed. All (except the fiancee) directly profited from and contributed to the death's of plantation workers. However, if Camille is the figure, it simply doesn't make sense. Why would she care about Vietnamese slaves? Linh came to the plantation to get revenge for her parents' deaths. Chau was their overseer while Han exposed their secret to runaway and the Captain signed off on their execution. I love that she comes in as an avenging force and doesn't even let her real feelings for the Captain get in the way of her revenge. Despite his nice actions, he still was a significant part of a society that systematically murdered and enslaved her people. Her life, and by extension the lives of many others, were considered disposable and ruined by the loss of the her parents.

The Housemaid is an enjoyable movie that works better as a drama than a horror movie. The dramatic elements are all well done. The acting, the sets, the score, and the sound design are all amazing. However, the supernatural elements come off as silly and cartoonish, mostly because of the digital effects. The ending, while incredibly satisfying, is a bit clunky. The story is told from Linh's point of view as she tells it to the police, so it kind of makes sense why things don't line up. It does come off a bit as poor planning. This film surprised me as I didn't really know what I was getting into. I love the use of supernatural horror to critique colonization and punish the colonizers and their lackeys. It's also a more accessible horror movie that's light on gore and heavy on romance and ghosts.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

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