By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Kate Nhung, Jean-Michel Richaud and Kim Xuan
Written and directed by Derek Nguyen
Perhaps not all the good ones are taken. Yet, as audiences immersed in Vietnamese-American director Derek Nguyen’s lush, disquieting and deeply affecting debut feature THE HOUSEMAID quickly learn, some of the most alluring and tempting surely are. And not merely by other lovers, but also occasionally by malevolent spirits, past sins, tradition, the calamities and vagaries of history and a primal desire for vengeance that can only be quenched with blood and suffering, not love and kindness.
“Star-crossed,” in other words, doesn’t begin to scratch the surface here.
After a brief, viscera-strewn, stakes-setting visit to a traumatic future, THE HOUSEMAID shuttles us back to…well, not exactly the beginning—the story, after all, takes place against the extraordinarily knotty backdrop of a French Indochina teetering on the edge of the abyss in the early 1950s—but the beginning of a particular end both informed by and separate from that combustible milieu. A young woman arrives at the gates of a large rubber plantation in the pouring rain, seeking employment. Her family, she tells the headmistress, was killed in an air raid. The rural farm she grew up on lies in ruins.
That Linh (Kate Nhung) is unmoored and desperate appears to make her an attractive candidate to the austere Mrs. Han (Kim Xuan) for a position on the bare-bones staff of the dashing French officer (Jean-Michel Richaud) currently occupying the estate. It’s a foreshadowing nod to the complex class dynamics at play, as well as the dangers of underestimating a potential adversary, whether one is a colonial power or an apparatchik serving its structure.
It turns out good help—like good romance—is difficult to come by when your land is soaked in the blood of vulnerable peasant workers, and the house occupied by the ghost of the French officer’s wife. Isolated in the all-but-abandoned house situated in a completely foreign land, she went mad, murdered her own baby, hung out with its rotting corpse for months, then drowned herself as penance.
The above description might sound like it should come with a spoiler alert, but don’t worry—that’s just the setup for a cavalcade of things going bump in the night (and day!), eerie surrealist immersions, palace intrigue and a blossoming affair between Linh and Richaud’s grieving Captain Sebastien Laurent. Despite all that activity swirling around them, they manage to discover forbidden love, go for drives in the countryside, have hot sex, etc. Alas, Laurent’s suspicious fiancée (Rosie Fellner) eventually arrives, the ghosts get bolder, the staff is up in arms over the demise of protocol and Linh has her own dark secrets surreptitiously prodding her to action.
If it sounds like THE HOUSEMAID has a lot of moving parts, it sure does. But devotees of the dark and strange shouldn’t mind; Nguyen’s ambitious, gorgeously rendered spectral romance fairly bursts with deft, nimble narrative construction and visionary atmospherics (courtesy of cinematographer Sam Chase). The setting is perfectly mined for the story; it’s as breathtaking as it is imposing. The cast is wonderful, especially the luminous Nhung, who believably inhabits every complex emotion—from smoldering restraint to utter catharsis—and pours it directly into the hole she bores into your soul. And though you can feel an impending reckoning and twist in the air, both are gratifyingly unpredictable in execution.
THE HOUSEMAID is, in short, a triumph of nuanced horror by a filmmaker who understands the value of unsettling you with caresses along the nape of the neck—before going for the jugular.
Join RUE MORGUE’s Michael Gingold for Q&As with writer/director Nguyen and composer Jerome Leroy at the 7:20 p.m. screenings of THE HOUSEMAID tonight and tomorrow at NYC’s IFC Center; see details here.