With The Taste of Money, director Lim Sang-soo intended to delve further into the opulent, scandalous themes explored in his previous work, The Housemaid (TMT Review), to which this film is an indirect sequel, and which was itself a remake of the 1960 Korean classic of the same name. The movie wears this lineage on its sleeve, as footage from both Housemaids make two separate, prominent cameos, each during a pivotal scene. Sang-soo’s idea of his film’s purpose and precedent is so vivid that it feels as if its creation was all but a formality. The Taste of Money is ultimately damaged by this precision, taking shape as a stunning but altogether hollow production.
We meet our protagonist, Joo Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo), face to face with several towering stacks of vaulted bills, dwarfed by an unfathomable amount of money. Evidence — though little is needed at this point in his career — that San-soo is a master of shot-composition, this frame establishes core themes of greed, helplessness, and sterility in about two seconds. After learning that Young-jak is a lackey for one of the wealthiest families in South Korea, we meet the members: Yoon (Baek Yoon-sik), the father and current company president, Geum-ok (Yoon Yeo-jeong), the icy mother, Chul (On Joo-wan), the reckless son, and Nami (Kim Hyo-jin), the daughter with a moral compass, who is also apparently the adult version of the young daughter in The Housemaid. As the film progresses, each character finds his or her way in and out lascivious situations and unapologetic avarice. Consequences are malleable in a world where jail is only a minor setback and affairs are repaid with additional affairs. It’s clear that the director wanted his audience to look derisively upon his vapid subjects, but The Taste of Money plays more like a cruel game of The Sims than a useful commentary.
Voyeurism is both a key motif and a meta-narrative of this project. Family members use hidden cameras to spy on one another, adultery is viewed and discovered from afar, and more than one scene frames Young-jak above his unknowing wealthy employers, literally looking down upon them. Beyond that, viewers are given more sex scenes than you can count on one hand, and a pair of gruesome, yet thematically bleak, demises. Because we are tracking with and experiencing many of the same feelings and sensations as the protagonist, we are meant to identify with him. But he is also condemned by the narrative. He, like any human, gives into temptation. Several times. Perhaps this is meant to illustrate an average person’s inability to stand up to ugly institutions, but then why must we scorn the other characters? Aren’t they only human, too? Sang-soo is vocally proud of the dozens of authentic paintings in The Taste of Money, and this is his second straight instance of meticulously arranging a decadent mise-en-scène. Maybe he is also obsessed with wealth.
The phrase “second straight” is appropriate in many other contexts here, as well. The Housemaid tread a great deal of the same territory as this effort, and was in almost all cases more effective, due to its tight, compelling narrative, and its fresh, stylized take on a familiar dynamic. The Taste of Money is just one of those things: stylized. Cinematography muscles aside, why was this movie made? Not every director has to jump between genres or subject matter, but few would be interested in making the same film twice (Haneke notwithstanding). The moral of this text is crystal clear: money corrupts. But a strong message does not necessarily make a strong film, and Im Sang-soon seems to be at a loss for how to color his para-parable. He describes it as both “a story that is absolutely necessary to a Westerner” and “a ‘very Korean story’ that foreigners can’t understand.” The decision to carry over a character from the previous story is equally puzzling, amounting to one mostly tossed-off conversation, and providing more confusion than impact. There’s a lot of misguided focus in this production, and in the end it’s just like the Housemaid references: striking and purposeful, but essentially unnecessary.