Back when Im Sang-soo presented The Housemaid, he felt like he had more to say about the rich, but it’s hard to tell what that is…
Employed by Chairman Yoon (Baek Yoon-Sik, The President’s Last Bang, I Am The King, Tazza: The High Rollers, Save the Green Planet!), the head of one of Korea’s wealthiest families, Joo Young-Jak (Kim Kang-Woo, Doomsday Book, The Coast Guard, HaHaHa) has been exposed to more than his fair share of intimate family secrets. Despite a good education, his 10 years of service see him at the beck and call of his boss.
With his eldest son Cheol (On Joo-Wan, The City of Violence, Bloody Tie, My Mighty Princess) surrounded by financial scandal, Yoon becomes increasingly disillusioned with his life, little more than a figurehead for his wife Baek Geum-Ok’s (Youn Yuh-Jung, The Housemaid, A Good Lawyer’s Wife, HaHaHa, The Actresses) real control over the family’s wealth and power.
Only Yoon’s daughter Yoon Na-Mi (Kim Hyo-Jin, Woochi, In My End is My Beginning, Genome Hazard) holds any semblance of appreciation for the perception of her family’s actions. Things turn very nasty when Chairman Yoon announces his departure to live with their Filipino housemaid Eva (Maui Taylor). Joo is offered a chance to take Yoon’s place with the promise of wealth and power, but can he resist the taste of money?
When director Im Sang-soo introduced The Housemaid at the 2010 London Korean Film Festival, he made it clear he felt like he’d taped a rich vein of inspiration that he was eager to explore further on film. As such, The Taste Of Money is a successor to Housemaid, presenting us with a family as Barque and detached from everyday reality as the former films end sequence, where that family seemed utterly unmoved by the lead’s fate.
For the main part, Im teases with those links: the daughter shares the same name of the young girl who made such a connection to the au pair Eun-yi; in Yoon’s melancholy, he blames himself for the tragic death of the nanny in their employ who burned herself alive. There’s even a scene where the original 1960 version of The Housemaid can clearly be seen watched on TV. (Though that maybe more of a reference to his admission that perhaps he should have called his previous film something else, as it had little to do with the original film beyond basic pretext.)
Within this construct, Im presents us with characters that are both ruthless, and largely oblivious to societies morals. Such decadence paints a picture of the household like some modern day equivalent of 17th or 18th aristocratic house. I found myself thinking of Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, where a lead character brought into service to a ridiculously wealthy family and seduced into believing he is a part of their lives, but never more than a pawn. Particularly in scenes like the brothel, it recalls The President’s Last Bang, as does these characters perceived irreproachability, but without Im’s previous biting satire.
When Geum-Ok realises just how serious her womanising husband’s feelings are for Eva, she ‘seduces’ Joo into sleeping with her. Youn, drawing wonderful comic awkwardness out of the situation, plays it with usual brilliance. Indeed the performances throughout are exemplary; Kim Kang-Woo intentionally affable as the films morale core, Baek Yoon-Sik shows surprising tenderness and vulnerability as the family head that has simply had enough of living a lie. Kim Hyo-Jin, better known for her TV work than film, is particularly strong as the daughter who is less oblivious to their employees than at first appears.
But herein lies one of the films problems, Im loves his actors too much not to make them sympathetic and give them great lines. As the film turns towards its darkest these characters should be unredeemable, escape from the service of the family impossible. Yet the last act veers to a romantic comedy, stumbling in tone as Im desperately tries to find a conclusion. One scene close to the end (no spoilers) looks more like it belongs in a horror film; it just confuses, leaving you unsure if it should be taken literally or not. The films message is unclear: should we be judgemental, afraid, engaged, or tolerant? I really don’t know.
In a minor role that becomes too major not to be noticeable is Darcy Paquet, playing the role of Robert Altman – rather knowingly named after the late famous auteur director of films such as The Player and Nashville. Darcy is a film critic of note, having helped introduce international audiences to Korean cinema for well over a decade. What he is not, however, is an actor – especially when even a seasoned pro would have trouble against such talent as this.
The film is beautifully shot by Kim Woo-hyung, who previously worked with Im on The President’s Last Bang and A Good Lawyer’s Wife. There’s some exquisite use of camera trickery in the opening titles, with a slow drive through the city district of Seoul while cars speed past them, no more than streaming headlights. A recurring motif of refection is used throughout. Just like The Housemaid, the family house is littered with expensive modern art pieces, no doubt again borrowed. This could just be Im’s prettiest film yet, but that itself suggests style over substance – did he intend the film to be as hollow as the lives he was representing? After the success of The Housemaid, it’s difficult not to be a little disappointed.
The Taste Of Money is released on UK DVD on Monday 6 January by Arrow Films.
Review originally published 21 October 2013.