Im Sang Soo’s 2010 dark erotic drama “The Housemaid” caused quite a stir, winning awards at a variety of festivals around the world and being nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes. Still, it’s somewhat of a surprise that for his 7th outing, the acclaimed director chose a follow-up sequel of sorts, featuring one of its characters as a grown up and again exploring the lives of the indecently rich and amoral in Korea. The film boasts a power ensemble cast of top Korean talent, including “Housemaid” veteran Yoon Yeo Jung returning in a different role, joined by Baek Yoon Shik (“Tazza: The High Rollers”), Kim Kang Woo (“A Better Tomorrow”), Kim Hyo Jin (“In My End is My Beginning”) and Ohn Joo Wan (“My Mighty Princess”), joined by Filipina actress Maui Taylor and, rather bizarrely, US film critic Darcy Parquet.
This time, Yoon Yeo Jung plays Heum Ok, a ruthless matriarch and the head of one of Korea’s biggest multi-national companies, who keeps her family and her philandering husband, CEO Yoon (Baek Yoon Shik) in line through their greed and love of money. Helping Heum Ok keep her secrets is Yoon’s private secretary Young Jak (Kim Kang Woo), a young man keen to join the inner circle of the privileged who is slowly coming to realise the cost of doing so. The family’s somewhat innocent daughter Na Mi (Kim Hyo Jin), has her eyes set on Young Jak, though soon has to contend with her mother’s salacious interests in the poor man. Although everything seems to be under control, their elegant façade starts to crumble when arrogant son Yoon Cheol (Ohn Joo Wan) gets into trouble with the law, putting an important deal with shady US businessman Robert (Darcy Paquet) in jeopardy, and CEO Yoon’s affair with Filipina maid Eva (Maui Taylor) is exposed.
“The Taste of Money” was met with a mixed reaction at Cannes, where it screened in competition, and this may in part be due to the uncertainty as to whether or not it’s actually a sequel to “The Housemaid”, Im Sang Soo ambiguously describing it as an ‘expansion’ of its predecessor. The waters are muddied by the character of Na Mi, the young daughter from “The Housemaid”, now grown up, though this in turn is given an odd self-referential twist by a scene in which characters sit down and watch the original film, passing comment on the action. Whatever the case, the two films are certainly very similar thematically, “The Taste of Money” again offering an expose of the Korean filthy rich and dealing with lust, jealousy, obsession and the corrupting influence of money and power – it has to be said, without adding bringing anything particularly new to the table.
Dig a little deeper though, and the film does have its differences and its own character. Whereas “The Housemaid” looked mainly at an outsider figure from a lower class attempting to break into the world of the elite, the follow up examines more closely the dynamics of the rich themselves, using the relationships and interplay between the various family members to question as to whether or not money can truly make people happy and fulfilled, highlighting the sacrifices made in its pursuit. Though Im gets a bit heavy handed at times and the film isn’t quite as deep and meaningful as he seems to think, this does make for interesting and searching viewing, and its damning take on an increasingly untouchable and powerful segment of Korean society hits home in many ways.
This having been said, the film definitely works best as a satirical comedy of sorts, being hysterical and over the top at times, and nowhere near as dark and grim as “The Housemaid”. The film is certainly very funny in places, seemingly intentionally so, its sleaze and scheming being amusingly ruthless and bordering on the camp. Added to this are the expected opulent production values, costumes and sets and some stunningly decadent visuals, and it’s easy to see why the film proved popular at the domestic box office. This was also likely due to the film being a controversial affair thanks to plenty of nudity and graphic sex, with most of the good looking cast spending part of the running time sans clothes or frolicking with prostitutes – though it’s worth mentioning as a warning that the film also features a rather surprising sex scene involving Yoon Yeo Jung, something which some viewers may or may not wish they had never seen.
All of this is enough to make “The Taste of Money” very entertaining viewing, and though not as accomplished or deep as “The Housemaid”, it stands as an enjoyably cynical and immoral couple of hours. Im Sang Soo remains one of Korea’s more ambitious and intelligent directors, and having now tackled politics, morality and corruption on a variety of different levels in his career, it’ll be interesting to see where he turns his gaze next.
Sang-soo Im (director) / Sang-soo Im (screenplay)
CAST: Yun-shik Baek … Company president Yoon
Hyo-jin Kim … Yoon Na-Mi
Kang-woo Kim … Joo Young-Jak
Yeo-Jung Yoon … Baek Geum-Ok