Even with such heady ingredients as sex, power and murder, there’s little flavor to “The Taste of Money,” a trite and tangled potboiler that, despite its polemical pretensions, is just a glorified Korean domestic drama with classier couture and shapelier champagne flutes. Im Sang-soo’s dubious follow-up to “The Housemaid” escalates plot and perfs from baroque to rococo without eliciting either sympathy or indignation, instead merely reveling in the insight that rich people are bastards. Pic shot to the top of the B.O. in local release, but the absence of A-list topliners will impoverish its overseas prospects.
Like “The Housemaid,” “The Taste of Money” views the corruption of a filthy rich family from the angle of an employee, who succumbs to the clan’s material and sexual seductions. Instead of a good-natured maid, however, this time it’s Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo), the handsome secretary to the chairman, Yoon (Baek Yoon-sik). Some convention-flouting sexual dynamics ensue (especially in age-conscious, hierarchy-minded Korea), as ambitious Young-jak becomes the boy-toy of Yoon’s wife, Keu-mok (Youn Yuh-jung).
An early scene in which Keu-mok forcibly overcomes Young-jak promises more subversive developments than the film delivers, as its focus on the intriguing power balance between an older woman and her young male subordinate gradually shifts to the blander romance between Young-jak and Keu-mok’s divorcee daughter, Nami (Kim Hyo-jin), who, according to the helmer, is the grown-up persona of the young miss in “The Housemaid.” The eventual need to choose between the two women presents no conflict for Young-jak and zero tension for auds, and even Nami’s discovery of her mother’s affair fails to build to any turning point or transformation.
“The Housemaid’s” story arc is more closely paralleled by a different strand, in which Yoon carries on an affair with Filipina domestic helper Eva (Maui Taylor) under the prying gaze of Keu-mok’s hidden cameras. A social climber who married Keu-mok for her wealth, Yoon represents what Young-jak could become, and his relationship with the uncalculating Eva provides the only human touch in the film’s cynical world. Yoon’s decision to break with his family and the mercenary values it stands for catalyzes a chain of events that nearly turns the pic into a noir thriller, but its lurid and literally operatic resolution sends it sliding back into camp.
From the outset, Im goes beyond merely mocking the sensual decadence of the upper class. Intent on excoriating political cronyism and multinational wheeling-and-dealing, the helmer includes a subplot involving a dirty slush-fund deal initiated by Yoon’s son and heir, Chul (On Ju-wan), who is in cahoots with an American businessman (Darcy Paquet) drawn in broad but humorless Gordon Gekko strokes.
Uneven pacing aside, the drama simply lacks strongly defined characters and engaging perfs. In the leading role, Young-jak is essentially a reactor to the intrigue around him, and undergoes various stages of exploitation and humiliation to no cathartic effect; wearing a dazed and miffed expression, Kim Kang-woo seems content to let his rippling naked torso do most of the acting. This leaves Youn to step up with an attention-grabbing but not overbearing presence that balances prima-donna tantrums with stony callousness.
Even more so than “The Housemaid,” “The Taste of Money” is as infatuated with decorative surfaces as its protags. The exorbitant set, constructed with studied symmetry in interior design on a 15,000-square-feet lot, is a spectacular exhibit, and d.p. Kim Woo-hyung employs flamboyant camera movements like 360-degree swivel plans even for simple dinner-table conversations. Music and sound are also overdone; for all the technical excellence, one strains to find any organic integration with the narrative or its themes.
Two excerpts from Im’s “The Housemaid” and the 1960 Kim Ki-young original which inspired these works come off as tacked-on and self-congratulatory.