I always find it more than a bit ironic when rich, artsy types feel the need to expose just how far money corrupts. On occasions – such as in Im Sang-soo’s stellar 2010 remake of THE HOUSEMAID – it’s particularly effective, insightful, and downright scathing. In fact, one has to wonder how these rich, artsy types go about finding the money and the financiers to put together such a visual indictment about how money destroys things, but, thankfully, I’m not a part of that world. All I have to do as a viewer is sit back and watch how the world unravels, confident in my assessment that I’ll never have the kind of ‘scratch’ to live the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. I guess it’s true that money can’t buy you happiness, but, boy, if THE TASTE OF MONEY is any indication, it sure can buy you tragedy.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come’, then read on …)
In a mansion outside of Seoul lives the Baek family – the richest of the rich South Korean businessmen. No longer content in the sexless isolation with his once-loving wife, Yoon (played with curious detachment by Yun-shik Baek) takes to ‘diddling’ the family maid, Eva, whom he rather quickly falls in love with. Realizing his wife Geom-Ok (Yeo-Jung Yoon) has found out, Yoon decides he no longer desires wealth and power. However, Geom-Ok has firmly placed her hooks into her husband’s young and hot assistant, Young-Jak (Kang-woo Kim), and she won’t allow her family to be destroyed without a fight.
So much of THE TASTE OF MONEY is, sadly, the ‘same old same old.’ The rich presented here maintain immeasurable than transcends South Korea (America is indicted as a co-conspirator in most of the themes explored here), and the poor or the have-nots – exemplified by Eva (Maui Taylor) and Young-Jak – only have the wealthy to rely on to gain access to any possible chance at the good life. Their morals appear above reproach principally because they’re only doing as they’ve been commanded – such as to sleep with your boss or some other dastardly deed – while the film continues to present only the wealthy as being deserving of such scrutiny.
However, these various players – if viewed as chess pieces being moved around the board by director Im Sang-soo – rarely take on a life of their own in the context of the ‘been there, done that’ story. Taylor seems smitten with the vastly older Yoon, but we’re never shown enough of her outside of the ‘sex pawn’ role to know whether or not her affections are legitimate. Kang-woo Kim – the probably conscience of the picture – is often shown unwilling to succumb to the temptations of those clearly in command (he refuses money, a glass of wine, etc.); still, once he’s paired off with whom we’re led to believe is the love of his future life (the wealthy family daughter, Nami, as played by the lovely Hyo-jin Kim), the two show absolutely zero natural chemistry with one another. It’s as if they’re in love solely because the script called for it. At times, the performances here almost feel as if they were structured to support the visuals, and, while I’m no director, I still know that’s no way to construct a narrative.
In the end, THE TASTE OF MONEY almost feels like leftovers – the total remains lingering on after the director already enjoyed a bountiful feast with the previous THE HOUSEMAID (seriously, I can’t praise that flick enough). Everything here tastes derivative, pre-packaged and mass-produced for an art-house audience, and that leaves this film more like an after-TASTE than anything else.
THE TASTE OF MONEY is produced by IFC Midnight, Daisy, Cinergy Entertainment, Lotte Entertainment, and Filmpasmal. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through IFC Films. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is largely a Korean spoken language release – there are smatterings of English scenes sprinkled throughout the picture – with English subtitles (no English dubbing available). As for the technical specifications? Trust me when I tell you that Im Sang-soo knows how to stage, light, shoot, and mike a production; this one is a feast for the eyes in most respects. As for the special features, there’s a brief (25 min.) short that takes you briefly behind-the-scenes, as well as the theatrical trailer, but that’s all she wrote.
RECOMMENDED (but still a bit disappointing). Visually sumptuous and at times pleasingly decadent, Im Sang-soo’s THE TASTE OF MONEY clearly falls short of being the perfect meal and feels more like a quick snack, especially when compared to the vastly superior previous work THE HOUSEMAID (admittedly a remake, but still). Only a few of the performances have the necessary bite to make this satire on money, greed, power, and relationships feel legitimate – Yeo-jung Yoon aptly chews scenery as the bitter matriarch clinging to authority, Yun-shik Baek appears suitably uninterested in all of it, but Hyo-jin Kim and Kang-woo Kim practically sleepwalk through most of their scenes and never muster a believable chemistry to make their pairing work. Go back and rewatch THE HOUSEMAID, and you’ll get nearly the same message with greater alacrity, and you’ll probably enjoy it more.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at IFC Films provided me with a DVD copy of THE TASTE OF MONEY by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.