Staring at the rich

Last night, I had the pleasure of watching the Korean film The Housemaid (2010) by Im Sang-Soo. In the film, a young girl is hired into the home of a wealthy and powerful family. Besides the fact that the house is somewhat creepy (to add flair to the film, no doubt), what is remarkable is how the high ranking family is presented. It is not at all obvious how to present an upper class family, because on the one hand they are just people and on the other you want them to look (and be?) superior. Let us see what they did here to show that superiority.

The woman is a stunningly beautiful and ruthless lady Macbeth and her husband plays piano as a concert pianist, has the manners and charm of a diplomate, the taste in food and wine of an enologist, the immaculate sense of dress of a top designer and has the trained body of an athlete all while having a demanding and time-consuming career. Now everyone understands that the point of this is to create a difference between the common girl and the high ranking family, but they clearly went overboard with it. Of course, in film or literature they often do, for the effect, but let us look at the underlying thought.

The thought behind such a presentation must be that people who are so high up on the social ladder can only possibly be there by devious means, so they must be corrupt in one way or another. Secondly, with an unlimited budget, people can become sophisticated in all fields (athletics, music, food and wine, etc). I think we can assume that the latter is an artistic trick to differentiate the characters. To become an expert in wine, sports or music one must dedicate years of study into the field. Money helps buy good teachers and free up time for study, but it remains limited – we can not do “everything”. But what about the former?

Power corrupts, they are powerful hence they must be corrupt. This fallacy is at the heart of the image people have of those above them, perhaps to mask jealousy. The image is reinforced by the press, as the sole times we hear details about the lives of those above us are when they are caught up in a scandal of sorts. When they out themselves voluntarily, it is to show themselves in a good light, so doing something they are good at or showing flattering pictures of themselves. If they would be wholly exposed, the illusion would be gone. That is why, in the movie, we follow the new maid as she discovers the family, to have the external eye. And then, by overdoing it on the particularities of the family and their lack of moral scruples, the audience, who we can safely assume are al the lesser to them, can find satisfaction in the thought that they at least have more moral integrity. I am feeling very happy. You?

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