There don’t seem to be a huge number of horror films produced in Vietnam, but one of the most memorable of recent years was Tran Ham’s 2014 possession film Hollow. The similarly supernatural The Housemaid now arrives in the UK on Blu-ray after festival screenings last year, and this is a classy, if flawed, haunted house film, with a strong central performance and a deep-rooted history.
French-occupied Vietnam, 1953. Linh (Kate Nhung) is a poor country girl who looks to a former plantation for work. The staff takes pity on her and hires her, though they don’t seem to give her a warm welcome. Linh meets the owner of the plantation, Captain Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud), and soon learns why the staff are so on edge – strange things happen in the house and its grounds, and whispers say that Laurent’s dead wife Camille (Svitlana Kovalenko) still roams the house. Despite the fearful atmosphere, Linh falls in love with Laurent and the embark on a whirlwind of an affair… until the past catches up with both of them.
The film drips with Gothic decadence. The rundown mansion is a wonderful setting for the admittedly mostly standard jump-scares and spooky goings-on, but they’re pulled off with a lovely sense of style and panache. The historical setting is rich, and here’s where I have to admit to knowing very, very little about the French occupation of Vietnam. The film is set during the very tail-end of this period, with around a year left of the First Indochinese War. Perhaps it’s down to my relative ignorance that it makes for such an intriguing backdrop, but something I genuinely enjoy about watching films like this is getting insights to unfamiliar histories.
The Housemaid is at its weakest when it’s a romance, and it’s perhaps unfortunate that it’s as much a romance as it is a horror film. Just that little bit too much time is spent establishing and confirming the relationship between Linh and Laurent, and it doesn’t quite sizzle as much as it should (it’s almost impossible to not at least slightly think about how good The Handmaiden is when watching, er, The Housemaid). While Kate Nhung is really wonderful as Linh throughout, Jean-Michel Richaud is frankly exceptionally bland as Laurent. Having to spend quite so much time watching them seduce and be seduced wears thin quite quickly – and the arrival of Laurent’s equally as bland fiancée Madeline (Rosie Fellner) doesn’t help matters. That being said, the relationship is key to how the horror plays out and how the narrative is resolved overall.
And that resolution, played out over the film’s final third or so, really is great. Even though my attention was waning from the weak middle section, the finale had me more than engrossed. Linh comes into her own in unexpected ways, and the way in which truths are revealed are very satisfying. There’s a lovely sense of ickiness to the horror as it progresses, and if anything, the film’s conclusion more than makes up for the earlier drudging pace.
The Housemaid is a satisfying, unashamedly gothic horror that’s well worth your time – as long as you can make it through the tedious romance.
The Housemaid is available on dual format DVD/Blu-ray on 19th February, as part of Eureka Entertainment’s new Montage Pictures range.