With three films in the official selection at this year's film festival, South Korea leads all other Asian nations, and every other country except France. For film watchers over the past decade, this is no long a surprise. South Korea is one of the few countries in the world where local productions outdraw Hollywood product, and for the past decade, since well, since the historical musical Chunhyang was accepted at Cannes in 2000, Korean films have won steady run of prizes at festivals.
They include a new film from Lee Chang Dong ( Oasis, Secret Sunshine) called Poetry, about a grandmother who takes a poetry class to discover the beauty in everyday life - and faces a dilemma when her grandson is faced with sexual assault. Director Hong Sang-soo ( Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors), who is regarded as the most rigorous and consistent of the Korean new wave, brings Ha Ha Ha, which begins with a Korean filmmaker making plans to move to Canada. Given the vigor of our respective film industries, this would seem to be a poor career move.
And then there's today's gala film, The Housemaid, from Im Sang-soo ( The President's Last Bang) is a remake of one of Korea's most celebrated films, an erotic shocker first made by Kim Ki-Young in 1960, during a brief window of liberality in Korean cinema. The original Housemaid was almost lost to history, before being painstakingly restored by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation. After being re-released to acclaim on the festival circuit in the last few years, The Housemaid came out on DVD last year, with commentary by current Korean box office champion Bong Joon-ho ( The Host, Mother).
Clearly, The Korean appetite for drastic domestic melodramas is nothing new. Yet the historical changes between the two version are fascinating. The original black-and-white movie was about a middle-class couple, struggling to maintain a lifestyle beyond their means, which causes the pregnant wife to become ill with exhaustion. They hire a factory girl as a maid, who seduces the husband and wreaks havoc on the family.
Both an indictment of post-war materialism and class fears, the original is a mad masterpiece which Scorsese described the film as "passionately claustrophobic."
Legend has it that original maid (Lee Eun-shim) was so persuasive her performance may have ruined her career. Reportedly, audiences were so outraged they yelled "Kill the bitch" at the screen and Lee found few directors willing to risk using her again.
The new lush and expansive colour version makes cryptic references to the original film - including a mysterious suicide in an opening scene - and is perhaps best understood as a contemporary response to the original film.
Right away, you know you're on different ground with the casting of the titular character. This time , the much-awarded Korean star Jeon Do-Yeon is in the role. Jeon, who won the best actress prize at Cannes in 2007 for her performance as a bereaved mother in Secret Sunshine, has one of the kindest, most sympathetic faces you're ever likely to see onscreen. There's no danger of anyone in the audience calling for her to be killed.
In this version, Jeon, 37, is clearly older than the actress who plays the wife, a pretty spoiled trophy for her wealthy, feckless husband.
Rather than a story of dangerous middle-class aspirations, this is a parable about the cruelty and lack of accountability of the rich.
Part of this makes a more conventional movie but also reflects a different economic world.
According to a 2007 study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, the gap between the rich and poor increased considerably in the years between 1996 and 2006, the years after the Asian financial bubble burst.
It's not entirely a coincidence that this was also the period that saw a flowering of Korean filmmaking. According to a recent book, Jinhee Choi's The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs, one of the things that helped Korean cinema was the movement of cash away from the stock market into relatively more stable kinds of venture capitalism -- including home-grown films.