Tuesday, March 29, 2011

French Illusionists and Korean Housemaids

In February, I saw The Illusionist at Stonestown and The Housemaid at Landmark Lumiere.

The Illusionist; animated; original screenplay by Jacques Tati; directed by Sylvain Chomet; (2010) - Official Website
The Housemaid starring Do-yeon Jeon; directed by Sang-soo Im; Korean with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website

Both films came with impressive pedigrees.

The Illusionist was written by Jacques Tati whose films I greatly enjoyed at a PFA retrospective last year.

The Housemaid is a remake of the 1960 South Korean film which I enjoyed at the 2010 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. The remake starred Do-yeon Jeon who impressed me in Secret Sunshine (2007) which I saw at the 2008 San Franisco Korean American Film Festival (which sadly seems defunct). Director Sang-soo Im also helmed The President's Last Bang (2005) which was one of the last art house films I saw at the Balboa before it converted to its current programming.


The Illusionist was directed by Sylvain Chomet who made the much heralded The Triplets of Bellville (2003). Chomet contacted Jacques Tati's daughter and sole survivor, Sophie Tatischeff, for permission to film the unproduced script. Originally intended as an expression of love from Tati to Sophie, Tatischeff couldn't bear the thought of an actor playing the role originally intended for her father. Based on her favorable impressions of Triplets of Bellville, Tatischeff agreed to film The Illusionist if it was animated and directed by Chomet.

With that backstory, the film takes on added poignancy. Set in the early 1960s, the film follows an aging magician who travels around Great Britain playing venues large and small. Even in large venues, he draws small crowds as rock & roll music is crowding out his quaint form of entertainment. The magician physically resembles Tati and his alter ego Monsieur Hulot although the character is clearly different. This magician is a much sadder figure than Hulot. While playing in a small (newly electrified) village in Scotland, he impresses a pre-adoloscent girl named Alice. Alice stows away on the ferry and attaches herself to the Illusionist as he plays an extended gig in Edinburgh. Alice is awestruck by the big city and the Illusionist immediately falls into a doting and paternalistic relationship towards her.

They stay in Edinburgh long enough for Alice to become a pretty young lady. When she attracts the attention of a young man and the Illusionist simultaneously ends his extended run, he realizes that it is time to let his dove fly free. Animated like a classic Disney film from the 1950s, The Illusionist evoked powerful emotions in me. The inevitable passage of time and aging process as well as the changing nature of relationships between child & parent struck deep chords within me. Maybe I'm getting sentimental in my old age. Several critics agree with me that Chomet and Tati have crafted a bittersweet and moving tale.

I can only wonder how Tati would have played the role in a live action adaptation. Tati didn't want to risk the success he had with Hulot by having audience associate this story and character with him. Using Tati's trademark technique of minimal dialogue and emphasis on sound, The Illusionist is textbook Tati. However, the somber tone and melancholy humor is far removed from Hulot. So the script remained unfilmed for 50 years. The wait was worth it.


The Housemaid must be a difficult film to make in South Korea...they keep messing up the ending. Without giving away the ending, I will say that I was disappointed in the 1960 version although censorship may have played a part.

The 2010 version also ends on a sour note although it is open to interpretation. The ride was not as fun in the remake. My biggest complaint with the 2010 version is that they switched the role of the aggressor. In the 1960 version, the maid surreptitiously sees the husbands fidelity wavering and makes her move. In the 2010 version, the husband initiates the affair after a failed attempt at coitus with his pregnant wife. In the 1960 version, the housemaid clearly turns the table on her employers after she is forced into having an abortion. In the 2010 version, the housemaid is a victim throughout and never asserts herself even dysfunctionally like in the original film.

As I waiting for the 2010 version to synchronize with the plot of the 1960 version (which it never does), I was superficially entertained. Actress Seo Woo must be the sexiest pregnant woman ever depicted on film. The film is set in a house which is impossibly chic. That may have been the crux of my less than enthusiastic response. In the original, the family was up and coming but in the remake, the family is fabulously wealthy and has been for at least two generations. The remake makes some statement on class struggles. If I had paid better attention in school, I could probably have spotted Marxist theories of the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Along the way the film veers into melodramatic and eventually pretentious territory. When all was said, I preferred the plot and dynamics of the original which is also to say I preferred the 1960 version. If I had not seen the 1960 version, I think I would proclaim The Housemaid to be an affectation by director Sang-soo Im. The film seemed to lack the spirit of The President's Last Bang or the 1960 original.

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