Joo Young-Jak (Kang-woo Kim) is the private male secretary of Baek Geum-ok (Yeo-Jung Yoon), middle-aged heiress and wife of a rich chaebol. Baek covets Joo’s young body, and he has already sold his pride for money a long time ago. What tangles up their relationship is the appearance of Baek’s daughter Na-mi (Hyo-jin Kim). Na-mi shows an interest in Young-jak, and he is also attracted to this girl who is so different from her money-is-everything parents.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: South Korean filmmaker Sang-soo Im’s latest feature expands on his 2010 movie, The Housemaid. Where the previous movie, itself a remake, was invested in the architecture of a wealthy home, where the dictates of power between an employer and his employees, be they the titular staff member or his complacent, pampered wife, played out with mounting tension, The Taste of Money expands the frame, moving through a vast mansion and into the power structure not just of the dynasty who live there, but the South Korean power structure they direct and abuse as they see fit.
Sang-soo Im’s direction moves quickly, sometimes strangely, between tones
Beginning with a bribe paid with a literal suitcase full of cash by a father, Joon (Yun-shik Baek), and his trusted assistant, Young-jak (Kang-woo Kim), to a prosecutor to avoid charges for his conniving son, Chul (Ju-wan On), privilege obtains an otherworldly quality in this florid, but nonetheless fascinating, melodrama. In their home, a palace of reflective surfaces and labyrinthine design where the outside world does not intrude, the clan wearily jokes about the bribes to politicians and other costs of running their empire. They do not see themselves as ordinary people, bound by rules, and this belief borne of commerce slowly proves to be true in a personal sense as well, with moral corruption and sadistic revenge their respectful stock-in-trade.
Even as a deal with an American conglomerate is being negotiated, the story doesn’t specify what the family owns or does – power is a personal trait, as evidenced by the presence of a wheelchair bound patriarch who snorts with derision at the actions of his successors. It is the elderly man’s now ageing daughter, Keum-ok (Yuh-jung Youn), who ultimately pulls the strings, and when she finds via her monitoring system that her husband, Joon, has fallen in love with the Filipino housekeeper, Eva (Maui Taylor), she takes revenge both public and personal, persecuting the couple and forcibly seducing the strapping Young-jak.
As a loyal retainer, Young-jak does as he’s told, but he can’t help grimacing and getting drunk, and the comic implications undercut what could be a coolly assayed description of unchecked power. Whether it’s entirely intentional or not, that’s a recurring element in Sang-soo Im’s direction – he moves quickly, sometimes strangely, between tones. In one scene Joon will be admitting his compliance in selling out and being a terrible husband and father, in the next his divorced daughter, Nami (Hyo-jin Kim) will be propositioning Young-jak, unaware that her mother has been beaten to the use of the family asset. The family’s wealth gives them access to organised crime, and the sudden bursts of violence add to the lack of reassuring gravity in the narrative.
As an exercise in style, The Taste of Money could be a particularly good soap opera, but it reaches deeper emotionally and spins off in loopier tangents than that regulated format generally allows. Sang-soo Im doesn’t always achieve what he’s trying to do, but it’s nonetheless intriguing because he’s actively working towards a specific outcome. In his lifestyles of the South Korean rich and infamous, the tragic, the macabre, and the mockingly funny, all have a place at the table.