Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Derek Nguyen
Writer: Derek Nguyen
Producer: Timothy Linh Bui
Stars: Kate Nhung, Jean-Michel Richaud, Kim Xuan, Rosie Fellner, Phi Phung, Kien An
A Vietnamese housemaid awakens a plantation’s murderous ghost when she begins a romance with the French officer who owns the land.
This is the logline I saw for “The Housemaid” before knowing anything else about the movie: “When an orphaned Vietnamese girl is hired to be a housemaid at a haunted rubber plantation in 1953 French Indochina, she unexpectedly falls in love with the French landowner and awakens the vengeful ghost of his dead wife, who is out for blood.”
Remove the word “haunted” as well as everything after “French landowner” and the majority of that sentence seems suited to describe an Oscar bait melodrama. I read this synopsis and considered skipping the film, presuming it to predominantly be a PBS period romance with only a tame supernatural tinge.
Initial assumptions might not believe a politicized wartime setting of conflicting cultures in colonial Asia would be the best backdrop for a ghoulish ghost story. With flushed cheeks I humbly confess, such assumptions are dead wrong. “The Housemaid” is an elegantly eerie thriller with the grand Gothic style of “Dark Shadows” before Barnabas Collins became the star of the show.
“The Housemaid” gives off all the right vibes from the get go. Likely filmed on a modest six-figure budget, the production’s scope feels much bigger than just five principal actors in a single location (although it was actually shot with more than one place standing in for the sprawling estate where everything occurs). Fantastic scenery is beautifully captured by Sam Chase’s cinematography. Jerome Leroy’s moodily melodic score with haunting piano pieces then ties a ribbon around this sumptuously sinister atmosphere.
In addition to music, much of the mood comes from camera setups that prominently feature oil lamps illuminating ominously painted portraits, or the cracked walls of once beauteous rooms that are now shadows of their former selves. The dark forest outside and the haunting hallways inside offer as much character as the cast.
“The Housemaid” incorporates a fair deal of jump scares too, yet they are creatively woven into the fabric of dread draping over everything. It’s a far cry between the cheapness of a cat bolting from a cupboard to emptily jazz a viewer and the contextual creepiness happening here. Loud rips and sharp cuts quicken the pulse in a manner that stays true to the tone, which is what primes the pump for the film’s frights in the first place.
Horror, romance, and drama adroitly trade each other as dance partners while “The Housemaid” blends genres into its unique texture. Supernatural spooks quiet down considerably during the movie’s midsection, however. And even with a trio of sex scenes that include discreet nudity, the romance element is far from scorching hot. The housemaid’s subservience and her employer’s seriousness squelch a lot of their sizzle. 105 minutes isn’t a long runtime, though tightening several of these sagging scenes would add tautness to the narrative thread.
That being said, one rarely encounters a directorial feature debut with as many successes as this one. “The Housemaid” is deceptively ambitious with its 1953 setting, large locations to light, and carousel of rotating notes to hit. Yet Derek Nguyen cautiously keeps that ambition in check through carefully measured style that is always thoughtful and often terrifying.
The capsule summary implies possible pretension or stuffiness that doesn’t sound ready-made to race right up a horror film fan’s alley. But think less “Masterpiece Theater” and more “The Woman in Black” with a splash of James Wan. There’s an excellent chance “The Housemaid” will surprise you with its smartly crafted story and exceptionally executed chills.
Fun footnote: The Ministry of Culture, Vietnam’s government censorship body for cinema, formally bans ghost stories. “The Housemaid” is one of the first films to be approved by the country despite its supernatural content. The director speculates this may be due to the fact that the ghost isn’t Vietnamese. There are also several twists to the mystery that may have mildly confused the Ministry into thinking certain objectionable (to them) content wasn’t what it appeared to be. This marks “The Housemaid” as a genuine milestone in Vietnamese film.
NOTE: The film’s Vietnamese title is “Co Hau Gai.”
Review Score: 80