Everybody ought to have a maid, goes the old adage, but finding one you can trust can be a tall order. Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid clearly sounds a warning call to husbands everywhere not to be tempted by the enticements of pretty young girls or conniving social climbers with designs on upending the domestic order by supplanting the legitimate wife from within her own home. The Housemaid is melodrama rewritten as horror in which a parasitical force colonises the domestic environment hell bent on taking it over through a subversion of its binding yet taboo foundation – sexual desire. Twenty years later, Suddenly in the Dark (깊은밤 갑자기, Gipeun Bam, Gapjagi) returns to the same theme but from a different angle. A once harmonious household is suddenly turned upside down following the introduction of a second female, provoking a series of crises within the already strained mind of its wife and mother.
Lepidopterist Kang Yu-jin (Yoon Il-bong) returns home after three weeks away chasing butterflies and is warmly greeted by his faithful wife, Seon-hee (Kim Young-ae), and their loving daughter. Seon-hee looks on while her husband shows off some slides of his latest finds to his colleagues but is disturbed by the incongruous presence of a shamanic statue, somehow mixed in with the shots of rare butterflies. The creepy doll-like figure continues to haunt Seon-hee who finds herself in a state of agitation regarding her husband’s frequent absences.
She is then, fairly non-plussed when Yu-jin returns from another trip with a strange young girl in tow. Essentially kind but also absent minded and a little insensitive, Yu-jin has picked up a waif and stray, recently orphaned and alone, with the idea of killing two birds with one stone by taking her into his house as a maid. On hearing Yu-jin’s explanation, Seon-hee reconsiders and is excited to get both some much needed domestic help and a degree of companionship in her otherwise lonely life. The girl, Mi-ok (Lee Ki-seon), is a little strange but seems grateful to have found a place to belong. Seon-hee, however, gradually becomes alarmed firstly by Mi-ok’s youth and beauty, and later by the presence of the same shamanic statue that’s been haunting her all this time among Mi-ok’s few belongings. Increasingly unhinged and paranoid, Seon-hee becomes convinced that her new maid has seduced her husband and means to kill her by any means possible.
Like The Housemaid, Suddenly in the Dark turns on the parasitical threat of an outsider within the family unit. Focussing on the women rather than the temptation and fall of the man of the house, the narrative shifts away from a crisis of male desire and responsibility to the fear and insecurity of the neglected, lonely housewife intentionally isolated from society at large yet under appreciated and often bored at home. By all appearances, the Kangs have made a fairly nice life for themselves with a spacious, if remote, country villa filled with nicknacks and elegant furniture, and seem to have a happy and fulfilled marriage. However, Yu-jin is often away for long stretches of time and even when home is often too occupied with work to appreciate his wife and daughter.
Seon-hee appears to have only one real “friend” who seems to be the sort of woman who likes to talk people down and undermine the happiness of others to make herself feel better. Consequently, she’s filled Seon-hee’s mind with lots of imagined troubles. Women over thirty might as well be sixty when it comes to male attention, she says. Suddenly throwing Seon-hee into a morass of uncertainty regarding her husband’s growing indifference towards her as he retreats to the spare room to finish writing his book, Eun-yeong is then quick to disregard Seon-hee’s distress over the threat posed by her new maid, refusing her help at the very time it’s most needed.
Mi-ok moves between an innocent young girl clutching the talisman left to her by her mother like a child her doll, and a predatory sex fiend corrupting and possessing Seon-hee’s husband aiming to displace her from her rightful position in this ordinary middle-class world. Aside from Seon-hee’s subjective perception, Yu-jin seems mostly indifferent or genially paternal in his dealings with Mi-ok, and even her caustic friend Eun-young remarks that she doesn’t think Mi-ok is all that pretty after all. In fact, the only person to be struck by Mi-ok’s physical beauty is Seon-hee who finds herself personally bathing her new maid, caressing her lithe and youthful body and remarking on the beauty of her skin. Insecure of her own ageing appearance, Seon-hee is, in one way or another, desirous of Mi-ok’s youthful figure, either jealously wishing to possess and wear it for herself, or possess it in a more obvious, externalised way.
Even if Seon-hee describes Mi-ok’s beauty as striking enough to attract even a woman, any latent desire on her own part is left on the level of psycho-sexual subtext rather than directly addressed even if each of the lingering shots of Mi-ok’s naked body are from Seon-hee’s POV and her (perhaps fantastical) observations of Mi-ok and her husband making love are entirely focussed on the younger woman.
Where Suddenly in the Dark diverges from its closer genre relatives is in its shamanistic themes as Seon-hee finds herself haunted by the creepy talisman and its later personification as Mi-ok before finally perhaps becoming the image herself. Shamanism had been aggressively suppressed in recent history, often viewed distastefully as a remnant of a backwards, superstitious age. Though Yu-jin insists that the doll is just a doll and holds no power, forcing Seon-hee to stay in the same room with it to overcome her irrational fear of a bit of old wood, the ancient ways work their magic on her, adding to her madness and ultimately provoking the final, psychedelic rampage.
Through the disorientating, kaleidoscopic butterfly vision which fractures Seon-hee’s fragile world view, Go creates a strange and eerie atmosphere of uncertainty as perception and reality diverge into opposing poles. Taking advantage of the recently relaxed censorship codes to further enhance the film’s erotic quality, Suddenly in the Dark is a psychedelic tour de force with its glass bottom view, green tinted shamanistic visions, taxidermy filled creepy mansion, and constantly shifting uncertainty born of spiritual and mental battling inside its heroine’s soul. A fantastic example of esoteric Korean horror, Suddenly in the Dark is an important rediscovery for the genre’s history but also a fascinating zeitgeisty character study which refuses definitive interpretation.
Recently released on blu-ray by Mondo Macabro with English subtitles (currently sold out, second pressing released 2017)
Mondo Macabro trailer (dialogue free, NSFW, quite creepy)