Thanks to the recession and the growing divide between the very rich and the extremely poor, along with the volcanic if somewhat ineffectual Occupy movement, the inner lives of those in power have become even more fascinating and dastardly. In "The Taste of Money," the newest film from largely unsung South Korean director Im Sang-soo, we get a private peek behind the scenes at a ruling class family in all its icky, decadent, morally unwell glory. And while "The Taste of Money" might have a lot on its mind, it's still a melodrama – a gloriously decadent, gorgeously photographed melodrama – a movie where people burst into tears and act very badly towards each other, all while wearing really fabulous clothes.
Im wisely makes the lead character Joo (Kim Kang-woo), a kind of low-level bagman (another character refers to him as a "salary man"), who despite working for a fantastically rich chairman (Baek Yoon-sik) for the past ten years, is still tasked with doing errand boy shit like smuggling a hidden camera into the room of an American businessman who the family is dealing with (played by Darcy Paquet). Like Neo stepping into the light and realizing the world he's living in is a giant computer simulation, so too does Joo begin to unravel the moral bankruptcy of the family he's working for, and it's incredibly helpful to see (and try to figure out) things from Joo's point of view.
Since this is a sleek domestic melodrama the intrigue is seemingly endless – the chairman's son (On Joo-wan) is a roguish playboy who is embroiled in ongoing litigation that could fuck up a giant merger with the company the sniveling American works for; the Chairman has fallen in love with the maid (and what's more – wants to leave his life of luxury for a modest existence with her and her kids); the Chairman's outrageously beautiful divorced daughter Nami (Kim Hyo-jin) falls for Joo; and the Chairman's wife, the steely Baek Geom-ok (Youn Yuh-jung), first presented to be a passive mother figure and head of the household, proves herself to be a much more fearsome foe.
As the movie glides along, Joo becomes more aware of the ins and outs of the family business, and he becomes more repulsed, vowing to do something about the injustices he's a witness to on an almost daily basis, perpetrated by those who employ him. This being a South Korean genre movie, there's a certain amount of unease when the movie starts shifting into darker terrain and an overwhelming sense of dread that Joo, like so many of his South Korean cinematic counterparts, will unleash a bloody vengeance on much of the family and anyone else who has the misfortune to get in his way.
But Im isn't that kind of filmmaker. Instead, he slowly and delicately shifts the balance of power, and instead of going for the jugular is more interested in aiming for the heart. (Sometimes, particularly in the wobbly final minutes of the film, this tips into sugary sentimentality but this happens only occasionally and without much detriment to the rest of the movie.) His photography is as luxurious as the house where much of the family is located – stylish to the point of nearly obscene. The camera glides over a large pyramidal pile of money, like the ruins of some Aztec temple, and he stages a heated confrontation with a lens that reduces the participants to the size of barely recognizable blur. He's playing with the opulence of the family, and the distance that comes with that kind of money. Wealth creates a barrier and nothing – not interpersonal relationships or the relationship between the camera and the performer – can penetrate it. There is a lot of betrayal and sex and a smattering of violence for sure. But even though the film is being released by IFC Midnight, which implies a kind of after hours illicitness, it never veers comically into high camp. Things stay grounded and (at least somewhat) emotionally relatable, no matter your income bracket.
While "The Taste of Money" isn't a runaway success, lacking the kind of metamorphosing surprise and haunted aura of his last look at the crazy inner lives of the South Korean elite, "The Housemaid," there is still plenty to admire about the film. We're not going to pretend that we understand the ins and outs of South Korean financial culture, but rich guys are pretty much the same the world over (money is, after all, the universal language), and whatever "The Taste of Money" is trying to say about those 1 percenters is read loud and clear. For all its opulent melodrama, embroidered by design and style and a kind of gilded excess, its thematic centers holds true – some people, no matter how much money they have, will always be bankrupt. [B+]