THE HOUSEMAID (2016)
Written and Directed by Derek Nguyen
Set in the year 1953 in Vietnam, THE HOUSEMAID is a slow-burning, supernatural, romantic horror-thriller that follows the tale of Linh, a young woman desperately in need of a job and somewhere to live after her own home is destroyed in an air raid, it taking all of her family with it. Alone in the world and nowhere to go, she stumbles across a job position of housemaid at Sa-Cat, a former rubber plantation, run by Frenchman Captain Sebastien Laurent and his team of three Vietnamese servants: Mrs Han the head housekeeper, Mrs Ngo the cook and Mr Chau the groundskeeper. Keen to impress her new employer and to keep a roof over her head, Linh diligently obeys every command resulting in Mrs Han leaving Linh in charge of the entire house during her absence. Alone and directly in charge of the daily orders, Linh quickly becomes noticed around the house by Captain Sebastien who takes a shine to the young woman. Attractive and polite, Linh is quite the catch and as he shows her some kindness that goes beyond the boundaries of a master/servant relationship, the a spark ignites between the two. As the relationship blossoms, something out in the forest grounds of the plantation begins to awaken. Could it be the traumatised souls of the plantation workers, who are now said to haunt the land, seeking revenge, or could it be the Captain’s wife, having committed suicide in the nearby lake, come back to reclaim her husband?
Captivatingly atmospheric, THE HOUSEMAID oozes the supernatural from every nook and cranny with its visual blend of traditional horror, American spook stories and the ol’ water-based scares of J-Horror transfixing viewers to the screen. In many ways, the film reminded me of The Others, perhaps due to the key role in which the servants play in the story. Watching them make their way around the mansion, sometimes with only a lamp to guide them, really adds to the suspense as they’re dwarfed by the sprawling estate and the grandeur of the mansion. Their sombre approach to their positions only makes the situation that more intense; Mrs Han being the stern madame keeping everyone in check, especially the more lively cook Mrs Ngo who practises in Eastern medicine, or “witchcraft as she calls it. Mrs Ngo’s surprise at Linh taking the job leaves the young woman confused until Ngo fills her in on the dark history of the plantation and why no locals will touch the place with a barge pole. So when the spooky stuff starts to go down, it’s of very little surprise to the occupants of the plantation and us, the viewer. In fact, the film is quite forward with its penchant for horror with the movie opening with a rather grisly demise, resulting in the telling of the backstory and events leading up this particular death.
When it comes to the horror aspect of the movie, there’s nothing here we haven’t really seen before. There’s the noises and crying, the spectres in the woods, objects flying around and the Insidious-esque veiled woman emerging from the lake; things we’ve all seen time and time again. However, the way it’s been created, blending gothic with a period Vietnam era, gives it an exotic feel that we might not have necessarily seen before. A blend of Vietnamese and English language adds to the vibe of this place being an alien one, both to Captain Laurent, himself a Parisian, and to Linh with her real home being 40 kilometres away. The plantation represents a place of horror itself and those in it have either been complicit in its terrible history or now face the horrors that haunt it.
Beautifully shot with tremendous performances from the cast involved, there’s definitely an appeal to THE HOUSEMAID and its hard not to be glued to the screen with its slick visuals and supernatural chills. However, when all’s said and done, there’s nothing really to set it apart from the rest of the genre flicks out there, except maybe the period and setting.
Is it enjoyable? Yes. Will I remember it in a week’s time? Probably not. That’s not to say it’s a bad film but unfortunately there’s nothing here that gives it the much needed punch it so achingly requires.