Originally posted November 21, 2007–I have enjoyed having Hana Tv installed in my house. Not only can I see some of the newest movies that I was unable to watch in theaters just a month (sometimes less for low-budget films) after their theatrical releases, but I can also see short films and sometimes older movies. One that I saw last nigh was Kim Ki-young’s Woman of Fire.
This 1982 movie is a remake of a film with the same title that Kim Ki-young made in 1972. The ‘72 version is available on video somewhere–it is just a matter of finding it. And both movies are based on Kim’s 1960 classic film, The Housemaid.
I loved the film The Housemaid. It has earned it reputation as one of the best Korean films of all times. I even like the ending which is sometimes criticized as dismantling the story. In the 1982 movie The Woman of Fire, there is no such ending that offers an alternative explanation to the story we are watching unfold. However, this change and others that were made to the original plot do NOT make the story better.
Unlike The Housemaid, Woman of Fire is not a thriller at heart. It is a melodrama. The elements of being a thriller are so diluted that we never feel any threat or sense of entrapment that is prevalent in the original. In fact, it seems like at any time, any one of the characters could have ended the chain of events before they got out of hand.
The movie begins with Myeong-ja (Na Yeong-hee) being hired as a maid by Jeong-soon (Kim Ji-mi), the wife of composer Dong-shik (Jeon Moo-song). Jeong-soon runs a poultry farm and, besides her duties of cooking and cleaning, Myeong-ja must help collect eggs, make feed and take care of the chickens. Myeong-ja, portrayed as slightly simple with an odd, wild streak, is only too happy to comply and, in fact, secured the job partly just because she needs a place to stay and to be treated kindly. She claims not to be interested in the salary.
Please remember that ‘you get what you pay for’ applies when hiring household help. But even at her rates, I don’t think Myeong-ja would have lasted more than an hour if she were in my employment. I would have fired her the moment she grabbed a live rat out of the cupboard and started swinging it around in front of my face by its tail before slamming it down on the ground and stomping on it. Myeong-ja uses rat poison to get the rest of the rats and chases the children around the house with a shovelful of dead rodents the next morning. I’m sure that looked good on her resume..
Dong-shik has many students practicing songs and music at his home and one of them, Hye-ok, is clearly trying to seduce him. She does this right under Jeong-soon nose leading to both she and Myeong-ja disliking the singer. In fact, their dislike for her is one of the things that binds them together even later in the film when the two women are at each other’s throats. When Jeong-soon is away for a few days, Hye-ok makes her move on the drunk Dong-shik. Myeong-ja, however, interferes and tosses Hye-ok out of the master bedroom locking the door from the inside. In his drunken state, Dong-shik mistakes his maid for Hye-ok and rapes her. Simple Myeong-ja now decides that this means they are married and she sets herself up as the mistress of the house.
The character of Dong-shik is one of the most frustrating things about this movie. He seems to be totally powerless to think straight whenever any woman bares the skin of her shoulders or tussles his hair. His character in this film just exists to be seduced by one of any number of women in the film and he makes no move to stop the fighting occurring in his house even when it results in the death of one of his children. I, for one, was at a loss over why Jeong-soon was fighting for him at all–his character is so emasculated and ineffective that I think his wife would have been better off without him.
The children are another problem in this movie. In The Housemaid, the kids were central to the plot and the boy’s death offered some of the most shocking moments in the film. In Woman of Fire ‘the boy’ dies the same way as in the original movie except that it may have been accidental due to Myeong-ja’s bizarre sense of humor. ‘The girl’ (were these kids even given names?) turns to prayer and thus survives the film. The infant (which I have read was thown from a balcony in the 1972 movie) has a similar scene in the ‘82 story but it turns out simply to be Jeong-soon’s imagination preying on her.
Let me back up for a moment. Myeong-ja’s killing of the boy was an accident? Yes. This Myeong-ja is not at all like the original housemaid just as her mistress in not the placid wife in the 1960 film. Myeong-ja even states that she has no intention of hurting anyone. In fact, it is Jeong-soon who first attempts something lethal by adding rat poison to lunch. It is Jeong-soon again who convinces Myeong-ja to get rid of the maid’s ex-husband permenantly and it is Jeong-soon who seems to be taking care of bodies with the grinder she keeps in the basement to make chicken feed. Myeong-ja actions are based on instict, Jeong-soon is the calculating planner.
As a melodrama of the early 80s––the film is filled with long scenes of people crying and this also helps to derail any tension that manages to mount. If the crying time was halved–this film might have been twenty minutes shorter…
It was not all bad though–It is watchable if you are not comparing it to the source material. And the strange love scene shot with the camera on the inside of the fireplace framing the couple painted on gold body paint was quite interesting–although clearly out of place in this film.
<Update> Woman of Fire ‘82 is now on DVD but without English subtitles