The Maid

The Maid (Sao-lab-chai) (2020)

The Maid had its UK première at FrightFest 2021

“It was very scary,” says Fon (Ratchanok Suwannaket) at the very beginning of The Maid (Sao-lab-chai), “Just when I think about it, it gives me chills.” Fon is describing to a psychiatrist the very first thing that we see in the film: a toy monkey belonging to Fon’s very young ward Lady Nid (Keetapat Pungrue), which Fon claims would not only stare at her, but come to life and terrorise her all over the vast, isolated mansion of Nid’s parents Uma (Savika Chaiyadej) and Nirach (Theerapat Sajakul).

The creepy toy monkey has of course long been a staple of genre cinema; they do straight horror in Kenneth J. Berton’s The Devil’s Gift (1984), James Watkins’ The Woman In Black (2012), and right across the Conjuring universe; they signify the arrival of an alien presence in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Carl Strathie’s not dissimilar Dark Encounter (2019); hell, there is even one – inevitably a villain – in Lee Unkrich’s animated Toy Story 3 (2010). Yet in Lee Thongkham’s film, that foregrounded monkey, though certainly very creepy indeed, is a piece of misdirection – as is Fon herself, who while a maid, is certainly not the maid of the title (even if more than one character could lay claim to that label). Indeed once the menacing monkey has driven Fon to quit her job, it becomes just a toy again, playing no further part in the narrative. Far more important will be the woman, similarly ‘scary’, that Fon casually mentions also having seen while looking after Nid.

Fon’s replacement as maid, the sweet-natured Joy (Ploy Sornarin), is quick to notice the ghostly woman haunting the halls of this large house. Nid sees her too, although the young girl may have a hereditary brain disorder that makes her prone to hallucinations. The spectral woman is revealed to be the former maid Ploy (Kannaporn Puangtong), who disappeared some half a decade earlier – and even after Joy has been repeatedly warned by the older housekeeper Ms Wan (Natanee Sitthisaman) that she should “not pry into others’ business”, a supernatural force is clearly guiding the new maid into discovering the story of what happened to her predecessor. It is a scenario that intimately connects every member of this household, including Joy – and if it begins with a monkey, it will end with a massacre. 

Misdirection abounds in The Maid, a twisty melodrama cum ghost story cum revenger’s tragedy with a formal tripartite structure charting the downfall of a household whose secrets will not stay buried. Paying due homage to its near namesakes Kim Ki-young’s toxic domestic drama The Housemaid (1960) – and its many remakes – and Park Chan-wook’s Sapphic period piece The Handmaiden (2016), as well as to Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003), Thongkham’s feature comes with all the dreamy design and immaculate stylishness of classic cinema. “Some people escape suffering by stopping time in their own world,” comments entitled, unhappy Uma early in the film – and indeed her splendid home seems stuck in the past, with only the smart phone of the cook Bhorn (Ounruan Rachote) to signify a setting more contemporary than, say, the Fifties or Sixties. Indeed, this household is haunted by history – albeit a rather more recent history – as its owners have become riven with marital dysfunction and have shown a deep contempt for (the) help willingly offered up. In a messy clash of adulterated classes and mixed legacies (money, madness), soon all the elegant wallpaper and polished floors will be bespattered with shrill psychodrama and stabby vendetta, as the film’s tone leaps violently from staid respectability to unhinged, exterminating ecstasy – and along with wine and tea, justice too is duly served. 

strap: Lee Thongkham serves up a terrifically toxic treat with this tale of twisty melodrama, ghost story and bloody revenger’s tragedy

© Anton Bitel