Firebrand filmmaker Im Sang-soo's last movie was a remake of the 1960 Korean classic "The Housemaid." While the original is a film noir about middle-age anxiety, Im's version was an extravagant middle finger extended to Korea's 1 percent. In his latest movie, "The Taste of Money," he once again spins a deliriously baroque tale about the sordid lives of the uber-rich.
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Joo Young-jak is the personal secretary for the fabulously wealthy Yoon clan. Though he is more than willing to break into a business associate's hotel room ninja-style and install a spy camera for his employer, he is still, at the beginning of the movie, an innocent of sorts. The film opens with Joo and his boss, Chairman Yoon, entering a room that's literally stacked to the rafters with cash. As they pile the cheddar into suitcases for a late-night bribe, Yoon hands him a bundle of won and says, "Have a taste of money. Everyone does." Joo refuses.
As we learn, the chairman has been poisoned by decades of easy access to dough and has been drowning his disappointments with himself and his ruthless wife Guem-Ok with a steady stream of babes and booze. When he declares his undying love for his buxom Filipina housemaid, Joo soon finds himself sucked into a web of family intrigue involving sex, betrayal, more sex, and murder.
While the first half of the movie follows the road of a standard-issue trashy potboiler, Im soon complicates that formula. Characters start out as cartoons and then deepen in unexpected ways. Instead of being the resourceful hero, Joo proves to be rather incompetent at extricating himself from his troubles. Guem-Ok is revealed to be not just the amoral ice queen (though she's certainly that) but a woman damaged by a lifetime of infidelity and mistrust. In fact, everyone in the film ends up crippled in one way or another by money and the limitless opportunities for sex and power that it buys. Though the movie slouches toward sentimentality by the end, "The Taste of Money" illustrates that cash goes down easy but has a mighty bitter aftertaste.
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