August 10, 2009
As a horror movie, The Maid is above-average--beautifully shot and crisply edited, but only scary per se in isolated moments, more makes-you-jump than gets-under-your-skin. Some of the film's creepier scenes turn out to be dreams, too, an overused trick that stifles momentum and adds less "psychological depth" than the filmmaker presumably intends. The acting is efficient yet pretty much uniformly one-note, and the film's depiction (and the twisty narrative's use) of a mentally challenged man nervously straddles the lines of good taste.
As a purposefully moody look at the pleasures and difficulties of adjusting to life in a foreign nation, this 2005 effort by Kelvin Tong (coincidentally, the auteur responsible for the last film I opined on here at Gold Lion) has plenty of interesting ideas. Centering on Rosa, a young Filipino woman who moves to Singapore to work as a maid for the Teo family, Tong's film understands the numerous hurdles in the way of assimilation in a way few contemporary films have evidenced. As Rosa slaves away under the strict, watchful eye of Mrs. Teo, she learns via letter that her younger brother has grown very ill. When the Teo's not only advance Rosa a month's salary to send back home but (with a major condition I won't reveal here) offer to help bring her brother to Singapore and pay for superior medical care, the pressure of the situation is subsequently intensified (call it the horror of being painfully, unenviably stuck).
Meanwhile, it's the Chinese seventh lunar month, or "hungry ghost month"--a superstition that Rosa doesn't initially understand but, of course, comes to understand. This premise only goes so far scare-wise and the territory Tong treads with it isn't necessarily new, but it does tie in effectively with his theme of alienation in a strange land. And when the trap-door drops out and The Maid checks the box for requisite late twists, it thankfully doesn't get overly convoluted or far-fetched with its "gotcha"'s. Sure, it could've wrapped up quite nicely as a fine, atmospheric social drama/ghost story without employing any third-act surprises--a statement that applies to so many products of this genre, Asian or otherwise--but, unlike a lot of horror flicks, Tong's doesn't unravel so much that it starts to reverse any goodwill it's earned. If that sounds like faint praise, you probably haven't watched enough horror movies over the past ten years.