Kim Ki-young is considered one of the greatest Korean directors, particularly due to the 1960 film, "The Housemaid - 1960", which is considered by many the greatest achievement of Korean cinema. In "Woman of Fire", the second part of his "Housemaid Trilogy", Kim revisits the theme of the first film, adding a number of elements and a contemporary visual style, in an effort that earned him a Best Director Award from Blue Dragon.
Here I have to note that I have not seen "The Housemaid - 1960", so I will examine "Woman on Fire" as an individual entity, without any comparisons to its predecessor.
The story begins with the police finding Dong-sik and Myeong-ja dead in a house next to a poultry farm, stabbed to death. Due to massive damage in the house, the police initially consider the crime a robbery case, but as more evidence come to the fore regarding Dong-sik's wife, Jeong-sook, the truth begins to surface. The film then unfolds in two axes, with the first and major one dealing with the story of the three until the events, and the second in the present.
In that fashion, we are first introduced to Myeong-ja, a country bumpkin that has been the victim of a rape attack, in a series of events that ended up with her killing one of her attackers, and her subsequent self-exile from the area. Through a job broker, she is hired by Jeong-sook, who runs a poultry farm and is also in charge of her household, which includes her composer husband, Dong-sik, her children and the servants. Myeong-ja even states that she will work for free as long as Jeong-sook finsd her a good husband.
Dong-sik is a good man who has never cheated on his wife, but under a lot of pressure due to his lack of success on his profession, and after a series of events that involve Hye-suk, a wannabe singer who does not hide her passion for him, he ends up extremely drunk, raping Myeong-ja in the house, even leaving her pregnant. As a surprisingly understanding Jeong-sook forces her maid to have an abortion, she unleashes a true femme fatale in her household, with terrible consequences for the trio.
Kim Ki-young uses the theme of the "femme fatale entering a quiet home to bring things upside down" in order to present his psychosexual comments, mostly through their consequences. The fact that Myeong-ja has a fit during the attack she suffered in her hometown, which continues to occur every time she witnesses others having sex, is a testament to this tendency. For Kim, sex seems to be a power with psychosomatic effects, as we watch Myeong-ja's sex-driven, downward spiral towards paranoia that seems to draw down both her "masters", along with her.
The "race" of the two women to win both Dong-sik and the upper hand in the household forms another very intriguing axis, with the one "winning" changing a number of times. Subsequently, Kim makes a rather harsh comment about men, with Dong-sik presented as being adrift on the waves of the will of the women in her life, with his lack of decisiveness and of a will to act actually being one of the main reasons for the tragedies that befall all protagonists.
Lastly, Kim also makes a point of highlighting the blights of human nature, as all of his characters end up swallowed by their own faults, and good becomes completely absent after a fashion, in a style that shares much similarities with Kim Ki-duk's anti-heroes.
Apart from the various social comments, Kim's narrative also functions quite well as a crime story, with the way he revelas the actual events depicted in the beginning being ingenious, retaining the agony inside the madness that takes over the story, until the end of the film. The fact that directors like Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho have openly cited Kim Ki-young as their influence is probably due to this particular prowess.
Jung Il-sung's work in the cinematography of the movie is also of the highest level, with him focusing on portraying the setting of the house as claustrophobic as possible. The intense reds and yellows that dominate the image quite frequently also add to this sense, and to the madness that fills the narrative, in a number of frames that have the quality of actual paintings. Kim Hee-su's editing keeps the various axes from becoming confusing, while a frequent "Trick" of his, which appears mostly during sex scenes, of presenting a number of stills from the actual act along with a number of seemingly irrelevant, but quite intense images, as a slideshow, is one of the greatest accomplishments of the production.
Young Yuh-jung as Myeong-ja embodies the essence of the femme fatale to the fullest, even adding another level, one of a physically and psychologically troubled individual, who is being tormented by the events of her life to the same degree as the torments she gives to the people around her. Namkoong Won as Dong-sik plays an individual, whose virtue is washed completely away through the actions of the women around him, to perfection, highlighting the fact that he is a slave to their will. Jun Kye-hyun is also great as Jeong-sook, a woman who has to fight against a power at least as significant as hers, in order to retain what he took for standard until Myeong-ja appeared in her life. The conflicting chemistry of the women is one of the film's best assets.
"Woman on Fire" is a great film, a testament to the quality of Kim Ki-young's filmography, and a must-see for all fans of Korean cinema, to say the least.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[Guest Film Review] "Woman of Fire" with Full Movie"
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