Treated as a dark comedy, director Im Sang-soo’s cautionary tale of extreme wealth and dysfunctional family life works. Some chuckles are to be had as the film exhibits a gin-dry and pleasingly wry sense of humour which takes pity on none of its players. Considered as a thriller or a sincere examination of corporate corruption and greed, however, things don’t really stack up.
A second-generation sequel to Im’s previous outing THE HOUSEMAID (2010), The Taste of Money focusses on the youthful salaryman Joo Young-jak in his position as personal assistant to the powerful business tycoon, Chairman Yoon. The quietly ambitious Young-jak performs his duties well, and he soon earns the trust of his master. It is not long before this trust permits him access, under the mask of well-to-do outward appearances, to the true seediness of the Yoon family’s private life: call girl orgies, corporate fraud and a mistress. He is a reluctant witness to the emotional battlefield that Yoon occupies, with his cold and bitter wife Baek Geum-ok (played with a crazed, Machiavellian brilliance by TV and film veteran Yoon Yeo-jeong) and spoilt adult children, Nami and Charlie.
Young-jak is used sexually by Yoon’s wife in a moment of perversely funny revenge (arthritic leg-humping) after she spies her husband snogging his mistress on the home security cameras. To purge himself of this experience, the young man lies in a hot bath, downing shots and sucking on a lemon. His attraction to the solemn Nami complicates his life further; feelings which appear to be reciprocated are never consummated. Quite why he refuses her, we are never really sure.
A lousy fighter and a hesitant lover, he comes across as a bit of a milquetoast.
Repression is our watchword here. Decades of pent-up resentment and contempt burst forth, knocking the family into a downward spiral of sinful acts and self-destructive aggression. Money can’t buy these people happiness, and is indeed central to their downfall as their lavish lifestyle crumbles around them. The problem of the mistress comes to a head, and Chairman’s life soon takes a nosedive. Geum-Ok conspires to harm Yoon and the family name by cutting off his access to the family fortune, blocking his ability to travel out of the country and orchestrating a personal tragedy. At one point, Charlie goes to jail.
It’s hard to draw any conclusions as to the moral worth of Young-jak. He displays a mild revulsion at his employer’s behaviour, but never really rebels or redeems himself. Is he a good guy? Not really. Given the task of emptying the family safe of its mountains of cash, he keeps a huge wad for himself and hides it behind his mirror at home. A lousy fighter and a hesitant lover, he comes across as a bit of a milquetoast. We are left wondering why he loiters about the place, implicating himself in an ever-worsening position, and doesn’t just pack it all in after Yoon suffers a breakdown triggered by grief. Similarly, the central malfunctions of the film as a whole are its emotional numbness, and reluctance to provide a moral spine. The viewer is left to acknowledge that these things happened, and to draw their own conclusions.