It all starts like a Vietnamese Rebecca or Jane Eyre, but the master’s late first wife is not about to let any floozy marry her husband. He also happens to be a Frenchman from a socially prominent family, in 1953 French Indochina. The naive servant girl and the frog officer are quite an unlikely couple, but their passion will not be denied, at least not by scandalized mortals in Derek Nguyen’s deliciously gothic The Housemaid, which opens this Friday in New York.
Having been orphaned and left homeless by the war (the French one), Linh travels hundreds of miles from her village to apply for the only opening she has heard of: the housemaid at the Sa Cat rubber plantation estate. However, there is a reason the position has been vacant so long, which she learns only after accepting housekeeper Ba Han’s probationary offer. Rumor has it, Sa Cat is haunted the ghosts of the hundreds of workers killed by the plantation’s brutal overseers. Even more ominously, the black clad ghost of Captain Sebastien Laurent’s widow also stalks the grounds—and she is a jealous ghost.
Much to the dismay of Mrs. Han, a powerful mutual-attraction develops between Linh and Laurent while she nurses him following an unsuccessful assassination attempt. However, it is safe to say from the supernaturally-charged in media res prologue, their romance will not end well. Eventually, we will learn what happened that fateful night, but Nguyen first rewinds to the beginning, as part of the investigating officers’ interrogation.
It is a shame the Vietnamese state film authorities hold perverse biases against supernatural horror, much like their Mainland Chinese counterparts, because they sure seem to have a knack for it, at least judging from The Housemaid. The nation also has a taste for the genre, given its standing as Vietnam’s third highest grossing film of all time, having somehow slipped past the censors. Some of the twists and turns are not spectacularly original, but the atmosphere and settings are to die for. This is one ominous looking manor house and the surrounding rubber trees are as spooky as any of the forest locales in Twin Peaks (then or now).
Kate Nhung is terrific as Linh, perfectly modulating her naivete, earthiness, and yes, sensuality. Jean-Michel Richaud is a bit stiff as Laurent (in all fairness, he spends at least half the film lying prone in bed), but he still develops some believable chemistry with Nhung. Kim Xuan would do Mrs. Danvers proud as the severely scoldy Mrs. Han, while Phi Phung turns some nice moments as the shrewder-than-she-looks cook, Mrs. Ngo.