Film Review: The Taste of Money

The arrogance of wealth and power as seen through the eyes of a family employee is a stylish follow-up to <i>The Housemaid</i> that has little to add.

The Taste of Money is a natural rhyme with a taste of honey and, indeed, it’s cash and sex that dominate this icy, stylized tale of two employees of the filthy rich who totter dangerously on the brink of upper-class rot. Korean writer-director Im Sang-soo, whose 2010 The Housemaid first brought him to competition in Cannes, revisits the themes of power and the powerless as though making a deliberate variation on the previous film, but it doesn’t seem like he has a whole lot more to say on the subject. Pretty to look at and dressed up with high fashion, amusing characters and stylish sex, the film holds its camp potential always a tempting hair’s-breadth away. When moralizing drama finally prevails, ennui resurfaces, leaving disappointment in its wake.

The uncertain groping for tone is fast becoming a trademark of Im’s style, keeping the audience guessing what strange turns the story may take and how events are to be interpreted. But in the end, nothing very surprising occurs, and the financial thriller promised in the opening scenes, when company president Joon (Baek Yoon-sik) swings open the steel door of the family bank vault before the dazzled eyes of his private secretary Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo), quickly dissolves into a family melodrama, “Dynasty”-style.

Paterfamilias Joon was seduced by the taste of money long ago, and has paid for it with a lifetime of emptiness at the side of his elegant but ruthless consort Keum-ok (a coolly villainous Youn Yuh-jung), who has taken the reins from her ancient-looking father. The latter pops up at intervals in his wheelchair, attended by a burly Sphinx-like nurse, with fine comic timing.

Entrenched in palatial modern luxury in a sprawling home of glass, steel and stone, the family and its help close ranks in their claustrophobic gilded cage. The grown son Chul (On Ju-wan) is a churlish scion of wealth and power, too clumsy at passing out the moneybags to politicians and journalists to stay out of jail. He risks ruin in an obviously iffy deal with a freewheeling American businessman who wisely trusts none of them.

The one honest member of the family is lovely divorcée Nami (Kim Hyo-jin), who looks perpetually surprised at the nefarious goings-on around her. Her attraction to the strapping “salary man” Young-jak is thwarted by the unwelcome attention he attracts of her mother. The slender, gray-coifed Keum-ok forces herself on him one night in an expertly shot scene that reverses male-female roles while reinforcing power games.

Keum-ok is madly jealous of Eva, their Catholic Filipino maid with two young children who has won the heart of her husband Yoon. It’s not just a fling, as it was in The Housemaid (scenes of the old and new versions are glimpsed in the family home theatre to underscore), but a serious love affair, and she calls in four men in black to prevent them from finding happiness together.

The silently bowing Young-jak makes a good center point, his muscular torso framed in the same meaty way as Eva’s naked breasts. Both are positive, believably acted characters poised between victimization and choice. Too bad the final scenes close the proceedings with unsatisfying ease.

Playing a key role in establishing the gilded cage that imprisons everybody, villains included, is the cold luxury of Kim Young-hee and Kim June’s sets, caressed by Kim Sung-kyu’s sumptuous lensing in grays and blacks.
The Hollywood Reporter