CANNES, France -- Opinions here have been sharply divided on the gorgeously photographed Korean film "The Housemaid," a sumptuous, erotic and sometimes grotesque melodrama on the subjects of adultery, money, power and class warfare. Count me as a supporter. Director Im Sang-soo, a controversial figure in Korean cinema, has performed a 21st-century update on a classic 1960 film (regarded as that nation's "Citizen Kane") and built his movie around gorgeous Korean star Jeon Do-yeon, who won the best-actress award at Cannes in 2007 ("Secret Sunshine").
Jeon plays Eun-yi, a working-class girl hired as a maid and nanny by one of Seoul's richest families. Lured into a steamy affair with her handsome, narcissistic employer, Eun-yi discovers first-hand how the ruling class can use money as a blunt instrument to subdue all difficulties. No one could call "The Housemaid" a subtle movie, and fans of the original film claim the new one is pale by comparison. I'm not sure the comparison is all that necessary or relevant; this intentionally lurid and overripe spectacle stands on its own as a black-comic drama in the vein of Paul Verhoeven and Claude Chabrol.
Although Jeon is by turns vulnerable, sexy, damaged and vengeful in the leading role, Im's rich cast features three other terrific actresses as the central female quartet chewing up the scenery and each other. Perhaps best of all is Youn Yuh-jung as the elderly servant whose apparent loyalty to the family conceals bottomless bitterness, although Seo Woo is also strong as the spoiled, jilted wife and Park Ji-young nearly steals the film as her scheming mother. This one ought to thrive as a dark-hearted art-house delight later this year.