DVD Review: 'The Taste of Money'

No stranger to tales of domestic intrigue, South Korean director Im Sang-soo follows up 2010's well-received The Housemaid with the not-so-well-received The Taste of Money (2012), an "erotic thriller" neither erotic nor thrilling. A soapy familial drama that gradually collapses under the weight of its own frothy suds, housemaids play a bit-part role in this sleek portrayal of Seoul-set opulence; objects of sexual desire to be fondled and fawned over rather than perceptively conveyed (more's the pity given Sang-soo's past endeavours). Whilst not unwatchable, there's little here to recommend to world cinema purists.

Baek Yun-shik plays Yoon, an incredibly wealthy Korean businessman for whom money is no object. The head of a wildly successful family, Yoon's fortune allows him to operate as he pleases, with every journalist, politician and lawman in town seemingly in his deep, deep pockets. With almost no constraints, the patriarch embarks on a number of sordid affairs with sex workers and house staff, subsequently falling in love with one particularly attractive Filipino maid (Maui Taylor). However, when Yoon's attentive assistant Joo (Kim Kang-woo) begins to take on more responsibilities at his master's side, he's slowly drawn into the family's high-stakes power games - with Yoon's wife (Yoon Yeo-jeong) the main exponent.

Swerving wildly from straight-faced satire to farcical melodrama, it's easy to see why The Taste of Money so perplexed Western critics upon its Cannes unveiling. The first third of Sang-soo's latest is undoubtedly the strongest, gradually feeding its audience scandalous scraps on the Yoon empire before spiralling into psychosexual territory. Unfortunately, the performances simply aren't there to hold together this almost Dallas-esque family affair. Yeo-jeong is arguably the standout, imbuing her Lady Macbeth-type figure with a genuine seething menace even before she sets her sights on the quiet and collected Joo. Yet we also have the likes of the excruciatingly ripe film critic turned actor Darcy Paquet as slippery US businessman Robert Altman, who seems to have been hired purely on his affinity with the Korean language.

An inconsequential seventh feature from one of South Korea's modern masters, Sang-soo's The Taste of Money splutters its way through a tawdry power struggle towards a grossly misjudged finale, where hope somehow blossoms out of complete hopelessness (both thematic and creative). For all of its lofty aspirations, this is East Asian cinema at its most brazen and disposable, a trashy curio that's unlikely to satisfy either Sang-soo converts or the great uninitiated. Admittedly misplaced amongst 2012's Palme d'Or contenders - with the director himself having expressed regret over its positioning since - the film's exasperating tonal shifts makes it equally impossible to commend it as a commercially-minded thriller outside of its native Korea.

Daniel Green


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