(A.k.a. CO HAU GAI)
Anyone up for a Vietnamese film from 2016 which merges romance, Gothic horror and period drama? If I tell you that Eureka!, prime purveyors of world cinema par excellence, are releasing it in the UK?? And that it has already been championed by our good friends at Abertoir Film Festival???
Well then, read on ...
It's Vietnam, 1963. Pretty young Linh (Kate Nhung) is the housemaid at the luxurious Sa-Cat estate, a mansion set in the heart of a once-prosperous rubber plantation owned by French captain Sebastien (Jean-Michel Richaud). One stormy evening Linh prepares the captain's supper and takes it to him in his sleeping quarters, doing her utmost to ignore the ghostly whispering emanating from the mansion's darkest corners as she ascends the stairs.
Upon reaching Sebastien's bedroom, Linh is horrified to discover that his bed-sheets are bloodied ...
Cut to the following morning, and Linh finds herself sat in an office at the local police station. Sebastien, it transpires, has been murdered - just the latest in a succession of brutal slayings that have blighted the area in recent months. As Linh discovered his body, she is now given the chance to tell her story.
And so, the flashbacks commence. We learn that Linh's family died during an air raid, prompting her to leave her small village and venture on foot into the countryside in the hope of finding gainful employment.
Chatter at a nearby market brought her to the Sa-Cat estate one rainy evening, where she'd learned that a housemaid position was up for grabs. The rather stern-looking housekeeper Mrs Han (Kim Xuan) begrudgingly lets her in and listens impassively to her sob story, before somewhat aggressively agreeing to take Linh on - on a trial basis. Linh is shown to her downtrodden box-room accommodation.
The next day, Linh gets busy in her new position. She meets the mansion's cook, who fills her in on the plantation's dubious history: the plantation was notorious for abusing its Vietnamese workers - tales of rape, beatings and murder ensue. What's more, we learn that Sebastien's wife Camille went mad from loneliness while living in the mansion and ended up drowning herself in a nearby lake. Local superstition suggests that the ghosts of she and the maltreated workers continue to haunt the grounds.
Oh dear. What has the demure Linh gotten herself into?
Pretty soon, Linh begins to hear and see weird, unexplained, spooky things - and is plagued by haunting dreams. When Sebastien returns home from an escapade suffering from a gunshot wound - and Mrs Han has to leave at short notice to tend to her own ailing mother, thus handing over housekeeper duties to Linh - the couple are brought together. Inevitably, they grow close and a relationship slowly but surely unfolds.
But what will Camille's spirit make of that?!
Writer-director Derek Nguyen's feature debut is an interesting if flawed prospect. On the one hand, it's technically flawless: from its stately widescreen compositions, luscious Gothic production design and mannered performances, to its meticulously nuanced sound effects and seamless marriage of arthouse and horror leanings.
On the other hand, THE HOUSEMAID suffers from a flagging pace midway through once the romance between Sebastien and Linh is allowed to take centre-stage, and the jump-scares are too cliched to really impact on any seasoned genre viewer. It all looks very pretty, a tad Bava-esque at times in fact, but there are no surprises to be had. We've seen it all before.
There's a slight mystery element to proceedings but it's nothing too revelatory. THE HOUSEMAID is still recommended viewing, but solely on account of the wonderful visuals, aural delights and atmosphere it evokes. Storywise and in terms of pacing, it's an erratic beast. Nguyen, however, shows potential.
Eureka! Entertainment are releasing the film as a dual-format affair, as part of their exciting new series Montage Pictures. We were sent a copy of the blu-ray disc for review purposes.
The film is presented uncut at 104 minutes and 30 seconds in length. Framed in its original 2.35:1 ratio, the MPEG4-AVC file is a keenly-sized affair which allows for maximum clarity, depth and contrast from the 1080p transfer. Colours are bold and true, blacks are consistently solid, images are crisp and clean.
Audio is proffered in choices of 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 stereo. Both are reliable affairs, with the former clearly winning over in terms of evenly balanced channels between quieter spoken moments, the occasionally bombastic score and jumpy sound design. Dialogue in the film is chiefly Vietnamese with passages of English here and there. Optional English subtitles are available both partially (covering the Vietnamese dialogue only) and fully (also incorporating text for the English dialogue).
A static main menu page gives us access to the audio set-up sub-folder. There is no scene selection menu but the film does have the benefit of remote-accessible chapters.
We only get one extra on the disc: the film's original 99-second trailer. In fairness, it's an efficiently atmospheric, evocative proposition which doesn't mislead while managing to admirably sell the film.
The disc is also defaulted to open with a 49-second HD trailer reel showcasing some of the films coming our way from Montage Pictures. Alongside THE HOUSEMAID, these include the likes of KILLS ON WHEELS, SUNTAN and STRANGLED.
THE HOUSEMAID is a flawed but handsomely mounted period piece, where the ghostly goings-on are a little hackneyed and the romantic elements slow things down a little too much, but we still get a watchable film regardless. It looks great on Eureka!'s disc.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Eureka!|