Saturday, 17 February 2018


It is no surprise that colonialism should have such an important role to play as the thematic lynchpin in Derek Nguyen’s debut feature The Housemaid (Cô Haû Gaí). The film, set in Vietnam in 1953 during the French Indochina War, positions itself as a traditional Gothic romance, a genre with many established literary antecedents in the 19th century that set a textual precedent for dealing with issues that arise from the fact of colonialism and the social dynamics of Empire -- including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, or even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. When it comes to the Gothic in cinema and on screen, none have mined the post-colonial guilt of a faded empire nation more effectively than Britain’s Hammer films in the 1960s and ‘70s, especially when it could find ways to combine the theme with Freudian notions of the return of the repressed; for example, in the sexually charged exoticism that underscores Jon Gilling’s The Reptile. However, Nguyen’s approach to the Gothic and to colonialism have much more in common with the work of Guillermo Del Toro in his films The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and, more recently, Crimson Peak which set creepy, fantastical goings-on in a closed location defined by a particular milieu, and use familiar tropes related to the Gothic genre to provide metaphorical context and commentary on specific historical events.

Writer-director Nguyen was born in what was then Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1973. His family left South Vietnam for the United States two years later, along with 130,000 refugees who also fled the country during the US evacuation, fearing retribution from the forces of the invading North Vietnamese. In The Housemaid, Nguyen reaches back several decades to before the Geneva Accords and the ensuing communist insurgency, to when the Viet Cong’s predecessors, the Viet Minh, were fighting a war which had been raging since 1946, for independence from French colonial forces. The complexity of the historical detail matters little to the arc of the story but is used merely to provide an anchor for a tale that seldom strays beyond the borders of a once grand but now gone-to-seed French colonial estate on the grounds of a rubber plantation hiding a very dark and violent history of abuse and oppression. This decaying mansion and the forbidding forest of rubber trees on its outskirts provide all the Gothic menace one could hope to derive from such a tale, as Nguyen turns for his Gothic model to a recent successful update of the recipe that recently helped revitalise Hammer Films: namely the 2012 adaptation of The Woman in Black

Originally, that story took the form of a novella by writer Susan Hill, and aimed to capture the essence of traditional fireside ghost stories like those that once might have been told by M.R. James to his Cambridge students over a glass of Christmas sherry. For the updated film iteration, imagery and more forthright jump-scare techniques borrowed from modern J Horror were also brought to the table. This is the style The Housemaid slavishly seeks to imitate, although after commencing with a strong but imitative prologue that reproduces a vision of the threating, darkly veiled spectral entity familiar from the source of its inspiration, the film later drifts into waters apparently more sedate, but with a stronger focus on areas of dark romance and sexuality. It becomes a fable-like exploration of the unequal but ambiguous erotic power dynamics that lie behind the master and servant, oppressed and oppressor relationships so intrinsic to a colonial set up, but will probably mystify or bore western horror fans who aren’t also up on their Poe or Daphne Du Maurier -- although this aspect of the tale doesn’t appear to have harmed its reception at home. However, this "third-highest-grossing horror film in Vietnam’s history" (a nice publicity line, but how many horror films from Vietnam have there actually been?) can’t resist for long the urge to unleash its own budget version of a ‘kitchen sink’ finale, as the last act presents a veritable torrent of enjoyably over-the-top pyrotechnic set-pieces and unlikely plot twists in a bid to hold its own with contemporary western fright flicks along the lines of Insidious or The Conjuring and its ilk. 

Nguyen’s screenplay admittedly does an impressive job, though, of outlining a very specific period in Vietnam’s history and making its content perfectly fit the well-defined contours of an utterly conventional ghost story cum Gothic Romance. The film’s nervous young orphaned heroine, Linh (Kate Nhung), arrives at the Sa-Chat estate on a suitably stormy night, looking for work as a housemaid after her family has been killed in air raids that wiped out most of her village. Austere head housekeeper Mrs Han (Kim Xuan) and an affable cook who claims also to be a witch (Phi Phung) are the only occupants of the otherwise-empty mansion, which is being preserved like a museum relic until the eventual return of its master -- currently away fighting communist guerrillas as an officer in the French army. Meanwhile brooding groundskeeper Mr Chau (Kien An) lives alone in one of the outer huts on the rubber plantation formerly used to house the French overseers who once made life a misery for the poor indigenous workers tricked into coming from all over the country to toil on the estate on the promise of good wages and a decent place to live. 

The estate’s dark history is defined by its troubling mixture of public exploitation and a very private, domestic form of grief: the imperialist cruelty and violence meted out to the plantation workers and their families – in the form of whippings, beatings and rapes – exists alongside the mental disintegration behind closed doors of the French estate manager’s tragic wife Madam Camille who, suffering from post-natal depression, reputably went mad with loneliness when her husband was called away to fight in the war: she drowned the couple’s baby in the bathtub but continued long after to administer to its rotting corpse in its crib, until finally drowning herself in a nearby lake. These macabre legacies of Empire (according to the kitchen cook, who tells Linh all about them) each leave their own imprint on the house and its surrounding grounds: Madam Camille’s black-shrouded ghost apparently haunts the hallways, staircases and recesses of the now-neglected mansion; while the spirits of the many hundreds of workers, murdered when the war for independence first broke out, allegedly now wander the forest of rubber trees under which their bones still lie buried in hidden mass graves.

The first act establishes Linh as a new and disruptive presence at the empty Sa-Chat estate -- with its grisly retinue of stirred up secrets and its still-uncertain future -- and falls into a pattern familiar to many traditional spook fests in which long, slow, moody sequences, where the young housemaid explores the mansion’s dark corridors by lamplight, are followed by the tension-release of a sudden jump scare. This is where the film is at its most Woman in Black-ish, with briefly glimpsed ghostly figures swishing into the frame, just beyond the protagonist’s eye-line as she wanders rooms and landings designed to showcase lush production design and set dressings highlighting a mix of Vietnamese and Western architectural and ornamental influences. These early forbidding explorations of Linh’s are also disturbed by the hollow, echoing, insistent cries of an unseen mewling baby, heard in some far-off, unidentifiable section of the house; and the inexplicable sight of a self-rocking crib, swathed in cobwebs, from which grabbing phantom hands suddenly emerge … only for Linh to wake with a fright from what turns out to have been merely a haunting nightmare. 

Such imagery is throughout complimented by Sam Chase’s rich and deeply textured cinematography, layering evocative details -- like the House of Usher-style family portraits lining the walls of Sa-Chat, or the estate's imported 1920s furnishings, both of which subliminally remind one of its rootedness in French imperialism -- in a blossoming mantle of atmospheric gloom and shadow seen enveloping the storm-lashed mansion. The estate's mix of east and west influences on its interior design can arguably be seen as a metaphor for the film itself, which has its own mosaic of influences that take on the history and unique geography of the regional setting and use them as the basis for an exercise in pure mainstream genre filmmaking that relies on story beats and filming techniques for its stylistic dressing that are indicative of the popular western forms of cinema its US-raised writer and director grew up on.

The middle section of the film is based around what happens when the estate’s French master, Captain Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud), turns up out of the blue, badly wounded after being ambushed by independence fighters, and in need of urgent medical assistance. He and his family have always insisted that local customs, such as the beliefs and practices of Eastern medicine, be ignored as a matter of principle and, in defence of that stand, Mrs Han forbids the witchcraft-practising cook from administering any of her potions and spells while they wait for a western doctor. However, when Han is called away to visit her sick mother, leaving Linh in charge, the young housemaid feels unable to resist when the Captain’s condition deteriorates to such an extent that death seems certain, and cook persuades her to let her try her own methods as a last resort. Here the film takes a detour away from the suggestive atmospherics of a traditional Gothic ghost story and into areas of more outright fantasy horror, as the cook’s ritualistic spell to accompany her remedies not only facilitates a miraculous recovery in the Captain, but appears also to raise the zombie-like cadaver of Madam Camille from its watery grave! 

This development (as well as the ensuing instances of poltergeist-style activity inside the mansion) at first suggest we are about to be given a straight up rollercoaster ride of spectacle-based horror, but instead the story slows down to become almost exclusively centred on a developing romantic relationship between Laurent and Linh. When the two remaining impediments to the couple embarking upon a full-blown romance – namely the cook and Mr Chu – leave for their annual holiday and hand the house and estate over to the sole care of Linh, she gradually goes from being nurse and carer for Laurent to becoming his lover, which eventually leads her to the role of mistress of the house. By the time a disconcerted Mrs Han and the others have returned, Linh has fully replaced Madam Camille in that role!

Here the film indulges in a minute examination of the shifting power dynamics at play in the relationship, making plain the exploitative aspects inherent to this historical context, and the social obstacles likely to crop up for the two lovers, which are looked at from both sides. When Laurent’s army colleagues visit the estate, they view Linh as almost subhuman; one of them even attempts to rape her – forcing Laurent to stop turning a blind eye to his countrymen’s abuses and put his cards on the table, renouncing his affiliates by kicking the group out in a fury. An even greater choice has to be made when Laurent’s English fiancée Madeline (Rosie Fellner) turns up wishing to resume their broken alliance, which leads to the melodrama of a bitter love rivalry that cuts across both class and racial barriers. 

But other class-related complications occur for Linh, too, when her employer Mrs Han returns, only to find that it is she now who has become the employee, while her former housemaid is now the mistress of the estate and her boss. Both Laurent and Linh have to face the accusation from their respective social peers that they have become “the enemy”, with Linh also having to confront the same predicament as that which once faced her predecessor, when she falls pregnant just as Laurent is about to be called away again to fight. There’s some justification to accusations that the apparent departure from straight ghost story and more upfront horror content for large stretches of the middle section of the film results in a slowness of pace, but the issue of the threat that the relationship poses to Linh’s cultural identity and the questioning of her suitability and authenticity in the role she has been called upon to assume at Sa-Chat is eventually explored through a possession subplot kicked off when Laurent opens up his former wife’s wardrobe to Linh in order to help her look more comfortably the part in her new high-status role.

There is eventually a huge twist to come that makes use of unreliable narrator tricks that are based on an ambiguity that's inherent to the status of the point of view from which we’ve been following these entire events; and the final act turns into something of an Evil Dead styled supernatural bloodbath, as bodies start piling up at the hand of the revenant Madam Camille, while the rotting corpses of the dead also rise up from their plantation ossuary in scenes highly suggestive of similar ones that were depicted in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh-Eaters. Scary pay-offs such as these ensure the film eventually delivers on its early promise, but it will be the fans of more traditional gothic fare who will be most likely to appreciate the thoughtful ruminations that lie at its heart, on the possibilities (or lack thereof) of rapprochement after colonial rule and the privations of war. This is an accomplished feature debut, with strongly committed performances from the small but convincing cast. It’s well worth a watch and is currently available in the UK on the Montage Pictures label, a sub-division of Eureka Entertainment, in a dual format double-disc edition with no extras.  


No comments:

Post a Comment