The spotless surfaces in Im Sang-soo’s beautifully perverse film reflect the wealthy family members' emptiness right back at them.
The Taste of Money, Im Sang-soo’s unsubtle critique of South Korea's upper class, sends viewers into its catalog-perfect mansion via a handsome new male servant. Looking at the rich through the eyes of the help is not a new idea, and here, Young-jak (Kin Kang-woo) provides a glimpse of a typically corrupt family, their money amassed over generations of morality-free greed. No surprise, their tempers are as black as their hearts.
The head of the household and chairman of the family corporation, Yoon (Baek Yoon-sik), was once an outsider himself. But as he confides in Young-jak, “I earned their confidence, and received money and power.” Having fatally compromised himself from the beginning, Yoon is now in free fall, openly carrying on with a Filipino servant, Eva (Maui Taylor), and barely paying attention to the family business.
In a telling omission, nobody ever directly references what that business actually does. All that seems to matter is that the money continues to come in by the truckload. The first scene shows Young-jak accompanying Yoon into a storeroom where cash is heaped up on pallets and waiting to be bagged up for delivery to anybody whose favor they can purchase. Later, a quick flash of a news report shows rioting at one of the family’s factories. But such external events don’t disturb the self-involved household's superficial calm. Yoon and his embittered wife Keu-mok (Youn Yuh-jing) live in icy discomfort, while their divorced daughter Nami (Kim Hyo-jin) lazes about. The son, Chul (On Ju-wan), is on the verge of being indicted on some kind of corruption charge. He is also in league with Robert (Darcy Paquet), an oily American businessman who shares Chul’s love of decadent accouterments.
While the family combusts, Young-jak tries to make sense of how they've come to be this way. But his own equilibrium is thrown off by their efforts to involve him in their dastardly activities: Yoon asks him to set up incriminating surveillance on Robert, Keu-mok makes more than one rapacious advance, and Nami bats her eyelashes. No innocent, Young-jak is nevertheless shocked by the extent of the family's deceits and how far they expect him to go. Still, it takes him much longer than the audience to figure out that the family is closer in spirit and method to the Borgias than the Rockefellers. When another servant tries to assuage Young-jak’s pricked conscience by telling him, “Money makes it all better,” she means it. This is a family who would pay off the weatherman if they thought it would make the sun shine for their picnic.
Their consistent greed doesn’t make for a consistent plot, however. The story bounces about in a fashion that’s as chaotic as the film’s visuals are placid, suffused with sumptuous malice. All those pristine rooms with nary a dust bunny to be seen, and every day’s meal the kind of tasteful feast served up in five-star European hotels; it begs the viewer to want to look behind the scrim and discover what evil is propping all of this up.
The problem with The Taste of Money is that the attendant malevolence has just the roots we expect, payoffs and infidelity, mostly. Im has taken up this topic before, in his 2010 film, The Housemaid; he calls the new one an "extension," though it seems more a companion piece, not extending ideas so much as it repeats them. Its overt attempts to bum-rush the melodramatic proceedings toward a critique of materialism rampant in South Korean society doesn’t take into account the family's distance from that society. A muddled conclusion that throws in some jarringly discordant notes (a silly romantic comedy moment on a plane, the brief appearance of a ghost) only further dissipates the film’s curious energy. In its wake, we're left with a few twisted strands of another story, perhaps our own fond memories of The Housemaid.