The Housemaid (Cô Hâu Gái) (2016)

The Housemaid (Cô Hâu Gái) first published by

Derek Nguyen’s feature debut The Housemaid (Cô Hâu Gái) is set in 1953, one year before the First Indochina War would end with rural insurgents, backed by the Chinese military, driving the French out of Vietnam. After finding her French master, Captain Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud), brutally, bloodily murdered in his own bed at the Sa-Cat estate, young housemaid Linh (Nhung Kate) is interrogated by the investigating police officers – one local (Linh Son Nguyen), one foreign (Leon Bown). Caught between two languages, much as her nation is caught between two cultures, Linh unfolds a tale, part social realism, part high gothic, of her uncanny experiences at the estate – where, she says, she had arrived impoverished and desperate for employment after her family was wiped out in an air raid. “Sa-cat”, she is told by the housekeeper Mrs Han (Kim Xuan), “is run like a French estate, not like a Vietnamese one.” It is also haunted, not just by the ghosts of the many locals who had died working its rubber plantation like slaves, but also by the jealous spirit of Laurent’s former wife Madame Camille (Svitlana Kovalenko), who went mad, drowning herself and her child, and who is said still to rise from the waters. 

The skeleton crew now running this once thriving estate – not just Mrs Han, but also kindly cook (and traditional herbalist) Mrs Ngo (Phu Phung), and the gruff groundskeeper Mr Chau (Kien An) – are all a generation older than Linh, and a part of the plantation’s troubled history. As Linh learns the ropes, she also grows closer to Laurent, a man whose attitudes towards the local populace have mellowed with time. Between maid and master, a slow-burning, seemingly impossible romance develops, and it comes with a sadomasochistic streak (“Hit me again. Harder! Harder!”, Laurent tells Linh, “I want you to hurt me!”), as the military captain seeks to be punished for historical misdeeds and to exorcise a past of exploitation and abuse. Yet as vengeful, literally revolting spirits gather and circle, Linh finds herself having to choose between irreconcilable worlds, and so comes to embody the many contradictions of colonialism.    

Following Lê Hoàng Hoa’s groundbreaking The Ghost of Hui Family (1972), there has only been a handful of horror films made in Vietnam, and most in the new millennium – perhaps because the very real horrors of two extended wars had been enough for the national populace.  The Housemaid is itself an allegory of war, and of the divided loyalties and doublespeak that become a necessary part of living under oppressive occupation. Like Park Chan-wook’s similarly titled (and similarly war-set) The Handmaiden (2016), Nguyen’s film deploys duplicitous storytelling to reveal (and conceal) a nation split in its allegiances. For here, beneath all the genre trappings and CG effects, lies the portrait of a country whose unsavoury buried history is ever resurfacing.

Summary: Derek Nguyen’s feature debut is a horror whose duplicitous gothic taps right into the contradictions of colonialism.

© Anton Bitel