Sang-soo Im (2012)
If a Western filmmaker took as their subject a fabulously rich business dynasty, their financial swindles and sexual betrayals, the resulting movie would likely be daring only if it implied approval of the family members’ social or personal morality. Nor would you expect The Taste of Money – given the economic profile of South Korea – to be regarded there as a shocking exposé of corruption among Seoul’s most successful capitalists: just as you’d expect, it excoriates their goings-on. Yet Wikipedia alleges that Sang-soo Im’s movie ‘triggered controversy and hype with its portrayal of the lives of the privileged in Korean society’. The Taste of Money competed at Cannes last year, where (Wikipedia again) ‘it received the lowest mark out of the 22 works vying for the Palme d’Or according to Screen International’. Sang-soo Im told the Korean media ‘that his failure to win was a personal “tragedy” and his participation a mistake because he was telling a “very Korean story” that foreigners can’t understand’. It may be some consolation that his movie (which Im also wrote) has had an international commercial release but I doubt that means non-Korean audiences are taking it seriously. I enjoyed The Taste of Money in the same kind of way that I enjoyed I Am Love back in 2010. The opulence of the pathological family’s lifestyle makes it visually appealing. So does the realisation of what’s pregnant in the morally fetid air of the family life described – ie sex. But the film is enjoyable only as de luxe trash.
This is evidently not what Im Sang-soo intended. Take, for instance, the film’s super-literal opening scene. Young-jak (Kang-woo Kim), the private secretary to company president Yoon (Yun-shik Baek), is packing cash from the family’s vast bank vault into suitcases, in readiness for a handover that will complete one of the company’s latest transactions. ‘Take a bit for yourself’, Yoon tells Young-jak, ‘everyone always does’. The young man picks up a huge wad of notes and sniffs them – he can almost taste the money! – but then decides to replace them. Sang-soo Im might as well have put an announcement on the screen that this will be a tale of the allure and corruption of wealth, and about how the protagonist Young-jak tries to fight it. Later on, Young-jak does take a small fortune from the strong room but he eventually replaces that too, and, in doing so, relieves himself of one of the moral burdens that, by now, are weighing heavily on him. Young-jak, whose own background is far from privileged, has been working for the family for ten years. As often in this kind of scenario, you soon wonder how his life with them has remained uneventful for as long as it appears to have done. He’s a chauffeur, a gofer, currently a supplier of prostitutes to keep happy an American businessman (Darcy Paquet) with whom the family is looking to strike a mega-bucks deal. (For reasons unclear to me, this American is called Robert Altman.) At one point, Yoon’s divorced daughter Nami (Hyo-jin Kim) tells Young-jak that the first time she saw him she knew she wanted to go to bed with him – a remark that reinforces your awareness of the artificial delay of the two of them getting it together. They’re both great looking and Nami, alone among the family but in common with Young-jak, is not unscrupulous. Among the rest of the characters, it’s only the father – although he’s been frequently unfaithful to his wife, the dragon matriarch Geum-ok (Yeo-jeong Yoon) – who has the capacity to love another person, namely the family’s Filipino maid Eva (Maui Taylor), who seems to mean more to Yoon than her predecessors as his mistress. The discovery of this liaison lights the fuse of Geum-ok’s revenge. First, she forces Young-jak to have sex with her; then she has Eva killed. Geum-ok’s bland but baleful son Chul (Ju-wan On) is the other significant member of the family.
The visual atmosphere of The Taste of Money is rather intriguing: the tension between the inhuman coldness of the design and decoration of the family’s vast residence and the warmth of lights in darkness, both indoors and outdoors, is strong. (It seems a long time before there’s a daylight scene at all.) The sexual encounters are various: the images of naked flesh can be erotic or coolly geometric – through the position of two bodies in relation to each other – or overripe. There’s an element of sadism in what Sang-soo Im has happen to Young-jak. His coupling with a rapacious late middle-aged woman exposes the vulnerability of his suited courtesy and reserve; his getting done over by baddies more than once exposes the vulnerability of his handsome features. When Yoon, after the death of Eva, cuts his wrists in the bath, the red liquid around him is almost luxurious. It’s these elements, more than the more explicit critique of the family’s behaviour, that gives The Taste of Money a decadent quality. There’s a perverted pleasure to be had in the images I’ve mentioned but this isn’t a matter of Sang-soo Im showing you the appeal of the characters’ rottenness while criticising it at the same time. The images register as the director’s inventions rather than as intrinsic to the way of life being described.
The finale is rather baffling: Young-jak, having quit working for the family, flies with Eva’s coffin to the Philippines. Nami takes the empty seat next to him on the plane and before long they’re having it off in the toilet. This is amusing enough but in the film’s final scene, in the Philippines, Sang-soo Im takes his camera inside Eva’s coffin and produces a horror moment. This, because it’s surprising, is immediately effective but it also seems to belong in a different movie. When Eva’s children learn their mother is dead and her daughter sobs, Young-jak looks up into the sky as if he’s to blame. Why? He resisted manfully throughout: he was hardly seduced into the ethos of the family; he struggled against going to bed with Geum-ok and even took his time having sex with her beautiful daughter. Although the characters are mostly one-dimensional, the actors are good – especially Kang-woo Kim as Young-jak. He strikes a fine balance between expressing and controlling his emotions, and it’s not just because nearly everyone else is so malignant that you root for him.
31 October 2013