Insanity reigns over a married couple and their housemaid in the most broken of homes.
“You killed my baby so yours needs to die too.”
Kim Ki-young’s Housemaid series is an interesting beast. The trilogy consists of movies created over the course of 22 years, all of which tell ostensibly the same story, with only a few variations on the theme. I haven’t seen the other films in the series, so won’t be able to do any comparisons, although an in-depth look at the way the same story can be retold over the decades could be worth doing. For now, I’ll stick to just Woman of Fire. In this one, the titular housemaid is Myeong-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), a country girl who moves to Seoul with her friend in order to make it big. Through a broker they’re able to find jobs, and Myeong-ja is taken in as the live-in housemaid to composer Dong-shik (Won Namkoong) and his chicken farmer wife Jeong-suk (Jeong Gye-hyeon).
Jeong-suk is paranoid that her husband is cheating on her with one of his singers and assigns Myeong-ja to prevent anything from happening. Despite his claim he would never cheat, he immediately does, though is so drunk he can’t tell his singer Hye-ok (O Yeong-a) from Myeong-ja, and ends up sleeping with their housekeeper, who immediately falls pregnant. Then things start to get dark when Myeong-ja, who’s been displaying some less-than-sane tendencies throughout, is made to have an abortion. And that’s only the start of the tensions within the house.
Myeong-ja was future Academy Award-winning Youn Yuh-jung’s first major role, and she gives it her all. She hides her character’s sinister side through innocent lip biting and by acting like a klutz, and though there is a definite place in the story we can use to pinpoint her change of behaviour, you can never be sure how much of her first half self was true of her character and how much was an act. Youn’s performance is a great deal of fun, and she playfully bounces between innocent, virginal girl and raving lunatic. It’s by no means subtle, or nuanced in the slightest but it’s fantastically entertaining and often quite intimidating.
The same is true from the other two leads. Once everyone starts to let loose, not a shred of scenery is left unchewed, and while the soap opera-style acting sometimes seems like a bit much, it perfectly fits this loud, intense experience. Kim Ki-young put in a lot of effort to make watching Woman of Fire as uncomfortable an experience as you can get, using striking lighting choices and great music, and the result is a truly gripping piece of madness that hooks you pretty early with its flashback-style narrative and never lets go until the inevitable, bloody ending.
Though despite all the good it has going, it doesn’t always work. The acting, like I said above, can be a bit much and there are a lot of character decisions and heel turns that come out of nowhere. They don’t do a lot to distract from the viewing experience, though. I’m reminded of classic theatre, where these big emotions are the norm. It also didn’t help that I’m not too familiar with the family dynamics and politics of 1970s Korea, and so some of the emotional manipulation and domestic drama went over my head, but everyone is acting those scenes with such conviction that you don’t need to understand the minutiae of why your child being murdered would negatively affect your social standing. This affects its overall pacing, which can get a bit weird and ends in a climax that drags on just a touch too long for me.
But hidden behind this veneer of a wild psycho-thriller is some solid commentary that still feels relevant today. Myeong-ja’s employers are practically in charge of what she does with her body, right down to effectively forcing her to abort her child. Like everything above, it’s not exactly graceful in its messaging, but it is effective. Woman of Fire is an excellent standalone story, and must make for a fascinating triple bill with the rest of its trilogy. Though if the other two are as untamed as this one, you might need a break between films.
Verdict: Visually arresting and fantastically exciting, Woman of Fire is an intense experience that feels both timeless and so, so 70s.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Sex: A low 4/10, considering how salacious it is
Dream building: Can’t have thirty or fewer floors.
Ginseng and chicken: Great for the libido
English subtitles: At the screening I was at, every line was comically delayed, but the burnt-in French ones were just fine.
Woman of Fire (1971)
Also known as: : 화녀 Hwanyeo
Director: Kim Ki-young
Writer: Kim Ki-young
Namkoong Won – Dong-shik
Jeon Gye-hyeon – Jeong-suk
Youn Yuh-jung – Myeong-ja
Choi Moo-ryong – Detective
O Yeong-a – Hye-ok
Chu Seok-yang – Ki-ja