A loose spiritual sequel to his more melodramatic, and more satisfying, torrid 2010 film The Housemaid (which memorably ended with the lead character immolating herself in front of her rich employers after being forcibly subjected to an abortion and then fired), much of director Im Sang-soo’s tepid The Taste Of Money takes place within the claustrophobic confines of the lavish mansion just outside Seoul where naïve salaryman Joo Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo) enters the web of spiteful, controlling matriarch Geum-ok (Yoon Yeo-Jung) who presides Medici-like over her dysfunctional family; her priapic, geriatric father (Kwon Byung-gil) and his malicious nurse (Hwang Jung-min), her weak, world-weary husband (and nominal head of the family business) Chairman Yoon (Baek Yoon-sik), her spoilt, vicious, playboy son Chul (On Joo-wan) and headstrong, flirtatious daughter Nami (Kim Hyo-jin).
Smart and ambitious but of humble origins, Joo is ostensibly Yoon’s private secretary but finds his role in this corporate/criminal family is closer to that of gofer-cum-bagman as Geum-ok and Chul use him to deliver massive bribes to corrupt government officials and set up dodgy American businessman Robert Altman (Darcy Paquet) – yup, you read that right they called the dodgy Yank ROBERT ALTMAN! – with hookers, booze and sushi (all of which he clandestinely films). Increasingly drawn to Nami, Joo finds his own morality and loyalties sorely tested when Yoon makes a last grasp at happiness with gorgeous Filipino maid Eva (Maui Taylor) that’s destined to end in tragedy.
With its lush fascination for decadence, voyeurism, lust and jealously and its bitter critique of South Korea’s social class system and ruling elite coupled with its glossy sheen, sleek style, soapy histrionics and lurid plot, The Taste Of Money is a somewhat schizophrenic film that’s tonally all over the place and a little too in love with the lavish wealth and ostentatious lifestyle it seeks to condemn. The performances are fine, if a little undistinguished, with only Yoon Yeo-Jung’s venomous mother making much of an impression and other than its opening scenes which make wonderfully unnerving use of time-lapse - Yoon and Joo’s car cruises slowly like a shark while all around them the night is filled with the warp-speed streaks of poorer motorists, one shot doing more to encapsulate Im’s jaundiced view of South Korean society than the rest of the film – the film is flatly, if expensively shot while it can only be hoped that Im’s script has been badly translated it’s so awful, one scene in particular, when Nami, the only consistently moral character in the film, reproaches her mother’s cruel behaviour by reminiscing about the day her maid set herself on fire in front of her as a child, only for her mother to disinterestedly dismiss her by commenting that she thought the pre-pubescent Nami would be too young to remember the event. Too young? That’s the kind of childhood memory that keeps therapists in business.
Sentimental with a curiously overt happy ending and an almost scopophilic fascination for conspicuous consumption, The Taste Of Money lacks the bite and heart of The Housemaid. The only taste it leaves is a sour one.
• The Taste Of Money at IMDb