Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid is a devastating look at class distinctions in South Korea couched in a film that manages to be erotic, blackly comic and stunningly photographed. Its heady mix of beauty and wit makes it a film that stuns and engages on multiple levels. Im’s latest film, The Taste of Money, takes aim at a similar target, but while nearly every frame is pleasing to the eye it misses the mark in some key areas.
Yoon (Baek Yun-shik) is the CEO of a large Korean corporation looking to expand into the Americas, but while he runs the company his wife Geum-ok (Yoon Yeo-jung) rules everything else with a watchful eye and an iron fist. Her secretary Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo) is ambitious and looking to climb the ladder of wealth and status, but the behaviors he witnesses are slowly breaking his resolve. The couple’s grown daughter, Na-mi (Kim Hyo-jin), is torn between the lifestyle and pangs of kindness and sympathy with those around them. Memories of a certain housemaid who perished before her eyes aren’t helping matters any either.
Yoon beats them both to the conscientious punch though when he falls in love with the maid (Maui Taylor) he’s been diddling on the side and decides to walk away and choose happiness over wealth. His actions don’t sit well with Geum-ok, especially as they coincide with legal issues brought on by their son’s (On Ju-wan) illicit behavior, and soon events take an even darker turn.
Im knows how to present and capture the ridiculously wealthy as both people to aspire towards and beasts to despise. It’s in his script of course, but it’s most effectively portrayed in the actors’ performances and the film’s lushly gorgeous visuals. Less successful are the attempts at weaving a darkly humorous vein between characters.
The stage is set in dramatic fashion with the elaborately designed and decorated family home where much of the action takes place. The large house is a maze of dark rooms and darker hearts with Geum-ok’s security closet where she keeps video and audio tabs on everyone being the soulless center of it all. The men in the family, along with an American businessman friend (Darcy Paquet) engage in sex-party shenanigans and topless massages, and Yoon’s hands even manage to find the maid’s soft parts during dinner.
These aren’t good people, and as Yoon himself declares at one point the money they all hunger for has left him with nothing but contempt. Na-mi meanwhile is torn between his newfound ideals and the life she’s always known. Strangely, the character is clearly meant to be the little girl from The Housemaid all grown up, but while it makes little sense logically (judging by the continuity of adult actors and time frames) it explains the troubles she’s now facing.
The contrast that worked so well there though of a woman trying to work her way into the upper class lifestyle isn’t as strong here. Young-jak is in line for that role, but he’s not given the same depth as the character of Li Eun-yi had. He never becomes a sympathetic soul, and as our only window into this family’s world we’re left feeling less than engaged with their antics and outcomes. The humor is also less effective as actions here often feel more cruel than ridiculous leaving the audience wincing instead of laughing.
With the exception of Paquet (who meets Asian cinema’s unspoken requirement to give the role of American characters to non-actors) the cast delivers strong and charismatic performances. Baek and Yoon Yeo-jung are the particular standouts though as a couple held together by money and appearances only. Her expressions manage both despair and disdain when her husband tells the family he only married her for the bounty, and along with a scene where she grows desperate for physical affection we get to see the curtains part to reveal the sad humanity behind the facade.
The Taste of Money remains a visual feast for fans of set design and cinematography, and that’s more than enough reason to give it a watch. But neither the film nor the characters ever really take hold making it more an exercise in sumptuous style than solid substance.
The Upside: Gorgeous cinematography and set design; somewhat engaging dissection of class distinction
The Downside: Characters on both sides aren’t all that compelling; story feels straightforward and lacking in depth
On the Side: Darcy Paquet is actually a film critic specializing in Korean cinema which explains his severe lack of acting ability