Director: Im Sang-soo
Cast: Baek Yun-shik, Kim Hyo-jin, Kim Kang-woo, Yoon Yeo-jung, Darcy Paquet
Running time: 114 mins
Release date: October 25
Im Sang-soo is back with The Taste of Money, described by the Korean director as ‘an extension’ of his 2010 film The Housemaid. Familiarity with the latter is not a prerequisite for watching his current offering which deals with similar themes such as the self-regarding nature of the upper classes, but is hampered by its own sense of righteousness.
Joo Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo) comes from a humble background and works as an assistant to Baek Yun-shik, who is president of one of South Korea’s most powerful conglomerates. In the course of his duties, Young-jak spends much time at his boss’ lavish residence outside of Seoul where Yun-shik’s wife, father-in-law and two grown-up children also live. Yun-shik married into the wealthy family for the prestige and power that came with it, but after falling for Filipino housemaid Eva (Maui Taylor), he decides to leave the family and start afresh with his new love.
This decision enrages wife and matriarch Geum-ok (Yoon Yeo-jung), and she sets in motion a chain of events that leads to chaos within both the household and the company. In the process Young-jak, an honest soul by nature, is given added responsibilities which have a corrupting influence on him and jeopardise his chances of a relationship with Yun-shik’s divorced daughter, Nami (Kim Hyo-jin). With sinister forces unleashed the reluctant Young-jak becomes entangled in a web of intrigue, his life at risk as the family sets about destroying itself from within.
The Taste of Money is an examination of the lives of South Korea’s privileged elite, who are portrayed as greedy, unhappy, obsessed with power, contemptuous of the rest of society and devoid of any sense of morality. There are touches of light humour, and Sang-soo has assembled an impressive cast, most notably Yoon Yeo-jung as forbidding matriarch Geom-ok, and Kwon Byung-gil as her slightly bonkers father Noh. And in his role as American businessman Robert Altman, Darcy Paquet delivers a performance so wooden that it is unintentionally hilarious.
In terms of visuals, Sang-soo has done a fine job. Decadence is the order of the day here, reflected in the opulent surroundings of the family’s compound, their predilection for drinking the finest of imported wines, and the sex parties with prostitutes that are used to keep potential business partners sweet.
Beyond that, there isn’t a whole lot to commend. When the film went to Cannes last year, it was received unfavourably by critics. Sang-soo countered that it was a uniquely Korean film which went over the heads of foreigners. He does have a point. The Taste of Money caused a stir in South Korea because it was seen as an attack on the families that head the country’s chaebols—conglomerates that have a foot in most every sector of the economy, stifling competition and wielding far more influence than would be the norm in Western societies. In doing so, it fed into a climate of hostility towards such all-powerful institutions that was already prevalent in a country that has in the past been referred to as ‘the hermit kingdom’.
Yet the director’s protestations only go so far. The Taste of Money is an intriguing tale, albeit one which comes across as one-dimensional – both in its portrayal of the wealthy and in the depth afforded to its characters. There are aspects that will inevitably be lost on Western audiences, but that does not account for every deficiency in a film that looks enticing but is lacking in true substance.