Ko Young-nam's erotic psychodrama is another fine example of the 'disruptive house servant' sub-genre.
From Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid in 1961 all the way to Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden last year, Korean cinema has delighted in torrid tales of disruptive house servants.
Whether as a way to contrast social classes or explore illicit sexuality, it has remained a compelling source for bold filmmakers. Ko Young-nam's erotic psychodrama Suddenly in Dark Night (1981), though less complex than the aforementioned, is another fine example of the sub-genre.
Seon-hee is the stay-at-home wife of a biology professor who specializes in rare butterflies. One day he returns to their large country home with Mi-ok, the orphaned child of a shaman, who becomes their live-in housemaid. At first, Seon-hee is thrilled for the extra help, but soon Mi-ok's mysterious doll begins to put her on edge and it isn't long before she suspects that Mi-ok and her husband are hiding something from her.
Suddenly in Dark Night, which was recently put out on Blu-ray by Mondo Macabre in North America and was screened at this year's Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan), is getting its day in the sun as a classic of Korean genre cinema, but viewers should be aware that for the most part, Ko's film is a psychological drama that only fully enters genre territory in its finale.
The build-up is compelling, if obvious in its plotting, and much of this is down to the strange mood the picture generates - a result of refracted lens effects, remarkable props and a strong lead performance from Kim Young-ae. It's pretty clear from the get-go what trajectory Seon-hee and Mi-ok's relationship will take, but some repetition aside, director Ko gooses up a familiar narrative with a mise-en-scene that is both more lush and precise than the majority of the Korean films of its day.
Director Ko has the distinction of being the most prolific Korean filmmaker of all time, as he made 110 features, nine more than the legendary Im Kwon-taek (who sits at number three on that list). However, unlike Im, Ko has precious few classics to his name, with Suddenly in Dark Night and The Shower (1979), an adaptation of a hugely famous melodramatic short story, standing out as his most famous films today. Having seen only those two out of his vast catalogue, I can say that Ko seems to be especially interested in color and costume design while foreshadowing plays a large part in both narratives.
In Suddenly in Dark Night, the costume design is particularly striking. Seon-hee wears conservative clothing with bold colors, such as purple and red, which seem to intensify as the film goes on. On the other hand, Mi-ok's clothing is generally white and more revealing, combining the contradictory innocent and lubricious sides of her character. What's more, Mi-ok's attire consists exclusively of hand-me-downs given to her by Seon-hee, hinting at what she might have been like in the past, and that self-loathing may be partly responsible for her unbridled hatred of Mi-ok. In any case, keen viewers will observe some narrative clues in the costume selection.
Kim Young-ae, who sadly succumbed to cancer just a few months ago at the age of 65, is known to modern audiences for melodramatic roles in The Attorney (2013), Cart (2014) and her final film Pandora, but seeing her in her heyday (which also included a role in Im Kwon-taek's Wang Sib Ri, My Hometown in 1976) is quite a different experience. She is magnetic in a performance that sees her combine both grace and tension in such a believable way that her strong mood swings never feel out of character.
After a few twists and turns, some more obvious than others, Suddenly in Dark Night launches itself into a feverish finale that is terrifying and teeming with memorable imagery. Trapping us in a house that we have become intimately familiar with during the story, Ko combines mysticism, psychosis and a cacophonous storm to stellar effect. The film may owe a great debt to the original The Housemaid, but this paranoid creation is a creepy and satisfying triumph in its own right.