In an industry completely regulated by the State, horror films are not exactly the norm, particularly since 2007, Vietnamese authorities have warned filmmakers against producing ghost and horror movies “with incomprehensible plots and extreme horror”. However, a few films of the genre have surfaced during the latest years, with “The Housemaid,” which became the third-highest-grossing horror film in Vietnam’s history, being one of the best samples.
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The film is set in 1953 Vietnam during the First Indochinese War and revolves around Linh, a docile and hardworking poor orphaned girl who comes to Sa Cat, a former rubber plantation who barely functions due to the war, seeking a housemaid job. Sebastien Laurent is a French captain and the owner of the plantation and the massive mansion, but the only ones left there seem to be Mrs Han, who runs the house, and the other two servants, Mrs. Ngo, a cook who seems to know magic and Mr Chau, a strange handyman who is in charge of all exterior works. Mrs Han takes pity on the girl and decides to hire her, but soon Linh comes face to face with a number of supernatural occurrences, mainly involving Sebastien’s now dead wife, Camille, and a number of workers who have found terrible deaths in the plantation during the past. Despite this setting, and particularly after the captain gets shot by the Vietnamese in his way home, Linh and her master, find themselves coming closer together. The unexpected return of Madeleine, a woman from Laurent’s past, makes the situation even more complicated.
Derek Nguyen in his debut directs a gothic thriller that thrives on its atmosphere, as it takes full advantage of the location, both in the baroque-gothic mansion and the eerie exterior, where the haunted location of the woods is exploited a much as possible. In that fashion, Sam Chase’s cinematography is one of the film’s best assets along with Jose Mari Pamintuan’s production design, with the two of them managing to highlight every corner of the setting in the most horrific way.
The story seems quite generic in the beginning, (the haunted house, the maid that falls in love with her master etc), but as the movie progresses, a number of plot twists come to the fore, that actually lessen the supernatural element, and present the film with another level, which elevates it above the average of the plethora of similar films.
Nguyen begins the film quite frantically, with a full-blown terror scene, which sets the atmosphere of the film quite nicely, particularly through Stephane Gauger’s rapid-cut editing and Franck Desmoulins abrupt sound. However, this tactic makes the middle of the movie seem a bit slow and uneventful, as Nguyen builds the romance of the story, including a number of sex scenes. The films picks up again its pace after this sequence until the finale, but some of the atmosphere that has been created from the beginning has already been lost. The ending, however, compensates fully.
Kate Nhung does a great job as Linh, highlighting her “country-bumpkin” nature, while the way she falls in love with her master and the changes she experiences after this event, are quite convincing. Kim Xuan as Mrs Han and Kien An as Mr. Chau implement the horror-atmosphere quite nicely, while Phi Phung as Mrs. Ngo has the role of intermediate among all the other characters, and in that setting, functions quite well. On the other hand, Jean-Michel Richaud is quite unremarkable as Captain Laurent, actually looking out of place at some scenes, although this could have been one of the goals of the director. The same applies to Rosie Felner as Madeleine, in a much smaller part though.
“The Housemaid” has its faults, but is a very interesting and entertaining film, that will satisfy all fans of the horror genre, as it presents a different approach to the category through romance and a very rewarding twist towards the end.