Im Sang-soo returns to the world of the fabulously wealthy following his 2010 modern meditation on the Korean classic film The Housemaid (1960). In some ways The Taste of Money could be seen as a sort of follow up to Im’s previous film with a very strong association drawn between the daughters in the two films who, at the very least, share the same name. The two films also share a few prominent themes such the destructive effect of a domestic affair and the ruthless cruelty of those with money. However, The Taste of Money tries to examine the problem from another angle.
Young-Jak is an ambitious young man currently working as an assistant to the filthy rich Yoon family. However, it seems that how the Yoons made their money ,if it not actually legal, was probably immoral and they clearly don’t have a problem with that. Eldest son and presumptive heir Chul is currently in hot water over a tax evasion accusation that’s threatening to put the kibosh on a lucrative deal with an American company. Young-Jak’s job seems to involve a lot of putting money in bags and giving them to various people with the utmost discretion. It’s all going very well for him but then one day he sees something he shouldn’t - while the family are all sitting down to watch a movie (Im’s housemaid in fact) Mr Yoon is getting busy with the Phillipino nanny. Young-jak isn’t the sort to tell tales, but that doesn’t matter as the family matriarch has surveillance cameras all over the place and quickly stumbles upon her husband's betrayal, setting off a course of increasingly unpleasant events.
Yes, we’ve seen a lot of this before. Money is a drug and the rich (or the nouveau riche who’ve made their money fairly recently) are a bunch of spoilt, thuggish children who are afraid of nothing so much as losing their place in the world. The ideas aren’t new but that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t still relevant. Young-Jak wants in to the rarefied world of the Yoons and is quickly seduced by the ease of their lifestyle but he’s far too principled to survive there. Mr Yoon is a good indication of what he might become if stayed too long - addicted to money and so full of self-loathing that he fills his days with cheap women and expensive wine. The only way to survive in this environment is to be born into it. If you don’t already know the rules, there’s no way you can be anything other than a pawn in a game you don’t even know you’ve been playing.
"Just because they’ve got money doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want" Young-Jak says at one point, except that’s exactly what it does mean - it’s not so much money in and of itself, or its material worth or even the social standing that goes with it that’s so seductive as much as the ‘freedom’ it affords the bearer. The Yoons can do pretty much whatever they want because they can always buy themselves out of trouble and there are always people willing to ally themselves with people who have money. So they want a legal matter to go away - no problem, do a few deals. Want someone out of the way? That’s no problem either, accidents happen all the time don’t they, so there’s no need to worry about pesky things like autopsies or police investigations. After all, the Yoons are respectable business people aren’t they, so it must all be alright?
There are some interesting points about corruption, both corporeal and incorporeal, being made in The Taste of Money - however it’s never quite as profound as it seems to want to be and at times does begin to feel pretentious. The characterisation is extremely weak and it’s impossible to really believe in any of the characters beyond the fairly stereotypical attributes they’ve all been given. Tonally, the film seems to flit between high camp and deadly serious without being able to find a balance between the two. What results is an admittedly handsome, slick film but with a soap opera-ish level of excess that makes it difficult to take seriously. The last few scenes in particular undergo such a tonal shift that make you start to wonder if it’s all going to be a dream.
The Taste of Money may be very good-looking but it moves at a pace that might best be described as glacial and often strains its credibility. Those who enjoy a slightly trashy melodrama about the sordid details of life among the upper classes will probably get much more out of this than those who’re looking for a serious art house exposé of fractured class relations, but when all is said and done The Taste of Money is an extremely well-made film that manages to entertain despite never quite delivering on its promise.
The Taste of Money opens in UK cinemas on Friday, October 25th 2013