CŌ HAÛ GAÍ (THE HOUSEMAID)
Some clarification is required. This Vietnam movie is neither the South Korean 1960 masterpiece that shares the same English translation nor the 2010 remake of that film. Cō Haû Gaí appeared in 2016. There may be much in it that is cheese and nonsense but the film is significant. Cō Haû Gaí achieved commercial success beyond the average Vietnamese film. The presence of Vietnamese-American director Derek Nguyen may have secured financial heft. So far Cō Haû Gaí has been seen in 18 countries. At a film festival in Los Angeles, Nhung Kate received a best actress award for her performance as Linh the housemaid. Like all the other actors in the film, she has a persona that suits her role. Most of the time the actors convince but the acting is variable and when really tested it is lacking. For me the selection of Nhung Kate for an award is baffling. But good luck to the woman, and to be fair she is not always helped by the dialogue in Cō Haû Gaí. Compromised performances and uneven dialogue can often be redeemed in a foreign movie by the distraction of the English subtitles. Written on a screen and a step removed from the performance because of the language the clinkers are not so obvious. This does not happen in Cō Haû Gaí .
But in an odd way the woodenness of the two lovers helps. Linh and Captain Sebastian Laurent think they are in love but their very different lives and histories prevent any real bonding or kinship. Neither lover convinces the other or us about their emotional dependency. The eroticism in Cō Haû Gaí is restrained and avoids the excess that marred the overpraised The Handmaiden but the sex between the Captain and the peasant girl from a village is important to what happens in the film. The only intimacy between these two people is physical. Their energetic lovemaking, which is seen briefly, provides relief for the couple rather than affection. It is no coincidence that the intimacy is established by accident and begins with the human body. After Sebastian is wounded by revolutionaries he has to be treated and bathed by Linh. These initial scenes that hint at a never to be understood sexual fate make sense and promise something more serious than what follows.
The horror scenes in Cō Haû Gaí are imaginative but not a success. One moment, though, should make most people jump. Of all the not so horrific moments it is the simplest that succeeds. It occurs when the mayhem is subdued. Too many of the horror scenes are infected with the thrill of the fairground ride. The car driven by an unseen ghost will make some people think of Herbie in The Love Bug. Thankfully the final appearance of the ghost is a calm coda and nothing more than smoke in a bedroom. It is seen from a distance and at the end of the long drive to the haunted mansion. The shot adds lyricism and suggests human impotence. Such poetry is far removed from the sudden cuts to blood being splashed on walls. There is no need to witness actual decapitation, the actors have some rights, but it is about time that this visual cliché is dumped. The frequent, extravagant and carefully planted horror scenes may mitigate any suspense but they do have a virtue. Unlike in many ghost stories we have a sense of how the supernatural is a permanent drain on the surrounding humans.
Not everything that happens within the film is a success but the denouement in Cō Haû Gaí is memorable. It combines rational explanation with ambiguous mystery about not just what has happened but the character of Linh. The previous events as they are described in the denouement are not feasible but the tale is brought together in a logical way. The final scene between the two domestic servants is as chilling as any of the previous horror or madness. Not only does it confirm our suspicions about supernatural intervention it reveals how an ordinary and not awful human being can through economic and imperial exploitation acquire the indifference of the psychopathic.
Cō Haû Gaí may be a shameless celebration of 19th Century gothic horror but there is, apart from the knowing references to famous Victorian tales, a political message that will be registered by everyone except the insensitive and the bigoted. Political polemic does not dominate the film. Most people will remember the visual images and the fairground horror. The initial tracking shot begins at a beautiful lake, proceeds through splendid and fertile countryside and finishes inside a bedroom. It belongs with the best although nothing is the equal of the famous arrival at the football match in El Secreto De Sus Ojos. Like Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, Linh likes to carry a candle around the dark corridors of the haunted mansion. And just in case we dismiss the candle as a coincidence the harrowing ghost is dressed in black and has a tendency to emerge from the middle of a lake. There are other familiar and enjoyable moments. The white dress that is given to Linh does not relate to the Wilkie Collins tale but its presence is a tribute. During their lovemaking Linh bites the lip of Sebastian and they exchange a drop of blood. For a brief instant the passion of the couple flirts with vampirism. This is acceptable homage but having ghosts that resemble zombies is not.
The political message, though, is important and the main reason why Cō Haû Gaí benefits from being indulged. The military colleagues of Sebastian are an unpleasant bunch of men that have an exaggerated sense of entitlement. They have contempt for the natives and their grievances. The attempted rape of Linh by the officer bully is both believable and disturbing. Madeleine, the upper class fiancée of Sebastian, accuses Linh of being a whore. A snatch of dialogue between the two women makes clear who is the real whore. Linh hopes for happiness with Sebastian. Madeleine desires an affluent way of life.
In Cō Haû Gaí there are the victimisers and the victimised but there is no simple distinction between heroes and villains. The victimised also include the cruel. Linh is a strong and determined woman and has just cause for her resentments but she is more than feminist polemic. Her plans require the help of a man. Both are equal and need the other. The same even-handedness is applied to the considerable villainy. The two genders have their sadistic examples. Cō Haû Gaí is an attempt to make an old-fashioned horror movie and recreate gothic thrills. If silliness is not that easy to avoid, it does not mean that the serious element can be ignored. It is not difficult to imagine a Vietnamese audience having fun in the cinema, yelling at the jump scares but later thinking about their history and the imperial interference and exploitation that caused damage and suffering.
Cō Haû Gaí is way behind The Innocents in terms of quality but it is not alone in that. It also has something that the British masterpiece lacks. Nhung Kate looks young enough to be a teenager. In The Innocents, Deborah Kerr is at least mature and she is a governess who has management responsibilities. The youth of Linh helps us understand the paradox at the heart of Cō Haû Gaí and the original tale by Henry James. Both films are about a woman who has to complete a rite of passage. The irony is that this rite of passage will condemn both women to permanent adolescence. This is not the only price of servitude but it exists and it affects more of us than we like to admit.
Of course, some manage to avoid servitude and yet remain in adolescence. In Britain as elsewhere there are such characters. The tragedy is that many of them design the servitude for others. It has something to do with expensive elitist schools subsidised by taxpayers. Boris Johnson is a leading example. Throughout his political career this gentleman has sneered at those he regards as his inferiors. There was no involvement of the UK Government in the invasion of Vietnam by the United States Military or so we are told. Our own memories of imperialism are different from those of the Vietnamese. For many Britons the various imperial adventures inspire shame rather than indignation. Characters like Boris Johnson are different. They thump their chests, ignore the slaughter and relish what they regard as triumphant conquest. This should explain why Johnson thought he could compare the Irish border to Borough boundaries in London and avoid dwelling on a tragic history inflicted by the ancestors of his schoolmates. Some people are without shame, which is just as well, because by the time he and they are finished with Brexit there will be much for which they should be ashamed.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.