Cinema Review: The Taste of Money

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DIR: Sang-soo Im  PRO: Jill Anoba-Yap  DOP: Woo-hyung Kim   CAST: Yun-shik Baek, Hyo-jin Kim, Kang-woo Kim, Ju-wan On
 
The Taste of Money centres on Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo) as he begins rising in prominence within a wealthy corporate-crime family and becomes embroiled in the strained relationships within it. However, unlike most crime dramas about criminal families, this film refreshingly avoids the ‘crime doesn’t pay’ stance. In fact it seems to show them all living quite comfortable lives with their ill-gotten wealth; discussing paying-off government figures with the disinterest one would associate with paying a bill. It’s almost as if this culture of corruption is normalised in modern civilisation. How novel. Sadly in lieu of that, the film instead decides to focus on the only slightly less overused trope of ‘money can’t buy you love/happiness/interest-ideal-state-of-being-to-be-attained-here’.

Visually, the film can only be praised. There is a pervasive cold, ordered structure to almost every room that the camera glides and spins around. And make no mistake, this film is almost singularly a series of conversations in different rooms. The set design for the family mansion, where most of the film takes place, is simply gorgeous. Sadly however, this isn’t supposed to be an interior decorating advertisement so the very fact that this is one of the more memorable aspects of the film doesn’t cast the rest of the production in a particularly favourable light.

Ultimately there just isn’t much to work with. There’s very little that’s truly bad about the film (that’s not to say there’s nothing bad, we’ll get to that), but there’s also very little worthy of praise. The story of the various family members’ fraught relationships with one another is reasonably engaging but fairly pedestrian. (Would it surprise you to know someone’s having an affair? With a housemaid? What scandal!) It occasionally tries to veer into more melodramatic territory but it never commits fully to it which, coupled with the overall cold and detached atmosphere, just leaves these moments feeling out of place and almost unintentionally funny. Humour is another issue. The first half of the film has a subtle but maintained air of quirkiness to it. Some scenes are played entirely for laughs and can be genuinely amusing but then in the third act it attempts a darker, more serious tone which ends up coming across as unconvincing and mildly schizophrenic overall.

The performances are, on balance, perfectly good across the board. Characters are clearly defined and played convincingly. Our lead, Kang-woo, credibly plays the deer-in-the-headlights shtick for the early movements of the film and actually shows some promise for a career in comedy as his performance in the scenes which are played for awkward laughs are genuinely amusing. His expressive talents as an actor are more noticeable in these short scenes than in the third act where more serious emotions are required. Similarly underwhelming is Yoon Yeo-jeong as the powerful matriarch figure. This is a role tailor made for a scenery-chewing turn by an actress which disappointingly never manifests here. That’s not to say she doesn’t command a presence when onscreen, it just isn’t enough of one to stop your eye being drawn to inanimate objects within the room. (In all seriousness though, there’s a smashed violin encased in glass that’s genuinely interesting to look at in every shot it appears in.)

This extends to the rest of the cast, with Baek Yoon-sik’s performance as the father one of the brighter spots due to his more relaxed attitude and penchant for breaking into song or just laughing maniacally. However, there is one actor who deserves special mention. The only American character is a man (arbitrarily) named Robert Altman played stunningly badly by Darcy Paquet. He is a black hole of discomfort in any scene he appears in. His delivery of every line is simultaneously devoid of emotion and uncomfortably awkward to watch, which combine together with his near-permanent psychotic smile to give the truly bizarre impression that his lines were dubbed over in post-production. He comes across like a supporting character from The Room lost in the wrong film. In fact, calling him a more eloquent and well-spoken version of Tommy Wiseau would not be inaccurate. Cruel, yes, but true.

The Taste of Money is harmless. The script and majority of the actors are just engaging enough that it never becomes dull and it remains consistently pleasant to look at. Sadly it just has nothing of interest to say or do, moving along at a decent pace to its perfectly adequate finale. It’s amusing and not un-enjoyable, competently put together for the most part and features a very interesting-looking smashed violin. And if that’s enough for some people, that’s okay.

 Richard Drumm

90 mins
The Taste of Money is released on 25th October 2013

The Taste of Money – Official Website

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Korean Cinema: 'Poetry' and 'The Housemaid'

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(pic: The Housemaid. Sang-soo Im, 2010)

Chang-dong Lee and Sang-soo Im are part of the new wave of South Korean directors who emerged during the latter half of the 1990s. Both men have used film to reflect on Korean society, but their approach and appeal marks them as two very different film-makers.
Im is regarded as provocative and irreverent. His broadly rendered, black-comic take on the assassination of president Chung-hee Park in The Presidents Last Bang is a fair representation of this director’s controversial bent. The film inevitably caused a stir and documentary footage (available on DVD) of the state funeral was cut from the theatrical release.

The Housemaid, which was nominated for the Palme D’Or, is a remake of Ki-young Kim’s landmark 1960 classic. One cannot help but compare the new and old and sadly the 2010 edition comes up short. Im endeavours to bring something fresh to the timeworn story of a wealthy family unsuccessfully coping with the side effects of infidelity. Speaking about his sixth film, the director stated that he wished to illustrate a widening gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ of modern society.

In this he is partially successful. In the original it was the well-off family who were threatened by the outsider. This time round it is the servant who is taken in, seduced and spat out by the opulence of her new surroundings. For a while, the viewer will be similarly wooed by gorgeous cinematography and a lavishly expensive purpose built mansion setting. The film looks great, but is ultimately superficial.

Widely respected screenwriter Soo-hyun Kim walked after disagreements about the script’s final draft and maybe she had a point. The film suffers from frustratingly lazy characterisation and feels stilted in both its pacing and overall execution. There are some nice moments between Do-yeon Jeon as the maid and former Ki-young Kim regular Yeo-jeong Yoon as her embittered senior colleague, but a lack of spine and believability reveals Im’s desire to shock as gratuitous and self-indulgent.

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(pic: Poetry. Chang-dong Lee, 2010)

Four years ago, Jeon won the best actress prize at Cannes for her role in Chang-dong Lee’s Secret Sunshine. This official nod helps to confirm Lee as an actor’s director. The former minister for culture and tourism, Lee worked as a teacher and novelist before finding his way to the directing chair in his 40s. Films like Oasis and Peppermint Candy have dealt unflinchingly with the harsh realties of modern Korean society.

The former charts the relationship of a couple afflicted by mental and physical disabilities. Cast aside, they live on the margins. Peppermint Candy,  is an unflinching examination of the damaging effects of 20 years history that takes in the late 90s financial crash, and the political corruption and violence of the 1980s.

While comparatively more sedate, Poetry, is a companion piece to Peppermint Candy. Although not explicitly stated, we realise that as a 66 year old, Mija has lived through civil war and a succession of military dictatorships. As a mother, a care assistant and woman, she has been relegated to edges of society. Even today she is subjected to the whims of her grandson, Wook, of whom she has sole custody. Even though the onset of Alzheimer’s threatens to take her vocabulary away, she is nonetheless inspired to enrol in a poetry writing class.

The film opens with the discovery of a school-girl’s corpse. Her diary reveals that Wook is one of a gang of rapists who drove her to suicide. Mija is contacted by the fathers of the other boys. In order to avert a police investigation, they plan to offer a compensation payment to the dead girl’s mother. The pursuit of justice is deemed less important than the boys’ future. Even the school’s headmaster agrees. Despite progress, democracy and the passage of time, women still suffer institutionalised chauvinism. Racked by guilt and a sense of her own helplessness, Mija looks to find peace and comfort in the pursuit of her poetic muse.

As usual, Lee’s direction is unobtrusive and affords his work an understated elegance. His award winning screenplay is by turns subtle and devastating, but always lucid. Perhaps most memorable however, is the performance of actress Jeong-hee Yoon. It has been over 15 years since the golden girl of 60s/70s Korea appeared on screen. Like the natural world portrayed in this film, she is a quiet and stunning revelation.

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If either of the films discussed here inspire you to investigate further, here is a list of five great places to start. The directors feature here, like Im and Lee, made turn of the millennium films, that kick started what is now regarded as a new golden age for South Korean cinema.

1) Joint Security Area. Chan-wook Park, 2000

Oldboy director Park came to our attention with a trio of films built around the theme of revenge. He has insisted that the idea for a ‘trilogy’ was founded in accident rather than design but the ‘T’ word has done his exposure no harm at all. This film is set at the borderline between North and South Korea and explores the fragile relations of enemy soldiers stationed there. This film was a huge domestic success and has some early glimpses of the director’s visual flair. JSA, featuring the reliably impressive Kang-ho Song, has a resonant storyline and is possibly Park’s best effort to date.

2) Memories of Murder. Joon-ho Bong, 2003

Bong Joon Ho, director of last years critically acclaimed ‘Mother’ has made a habit of melding genre specifics to ideas that reflect on the society he grew up in. This film, based on fact, concerns the search for a murderer that lasted six years. The killer claimed 10 victims, yet still managed to elude police. The 1980s military rule is recalled in a blunt and brutal police investigation that yields little success. With a measured grasp of police thriller/horror dynamics, the killer is revealed as a spectre that taints rural rice fields and railway lines as well as recent memory.

3) Tale of Cinema. Sang-soo Hong, 2005

Various traces of influence can be detected in this director’s oeuvre but his films defy easy categorisation. His detached style and recurring earthy themes arguably make his work an acquired taste. Fans of the art house will, however, find much to enjoy. Tale of Cinema is a great introduction to his work. Here, Hong takes a withering look at art imitating life and vice versa. His hollow and desperate cast are rendered with an acerbic wit that makes us unsure whether to laugh or cringe. However, his honed craftsmanship means you will keep watching.

4) Christmas in August. Jin-ho Hur, 1998

Jin-ho Hur’s debut is a minor cultural touchstone in Korea, having been referenced in no less than five films since its release. A man who runs a photography business is diagnosed with a terminal illness. This news comes just as he begins to fall for a woman who frequents his shop. Coming to terms with his illness he gets drunk and tries to prepare his family. The impression given is that life thus far has been pretty uneventful. His romance with Darim, played by Eun-ha Shim represents his last chance to find something deeper in his last months. Dignified in tone, Christmas in August is a remarkable film that at best recalls the understated sentiment of Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu.

5) The Harmonium in my Memory. Young-jae Lee, 1999

‘Harmonium’ is a similarly bittersweet, though ultimately sunnier take on the theme of love. A breezy and agreeable slice of life, it features an early leading man role for Byung-hun Lee, more recently seen in GI Joe. He plays an enthusiastic young teacher whose infectious manner fuels the youthful crush of one of his students. Do-yeon Jeon, playing a character almost ten years her junior, excels. The shy and awkward teenager experiencing the highs and lows of infatuation is perfectly realised by Jeon. Her talent has since been internationally recognised, but this film remains an early career highlight for both leads.

Tracking down these films shouldn’t prove difficult; between them Laser, The IFI, Tower and HMV carry a good selection of titles and the usual online haunts are always worth a look. While logged on you can find the Korean Film Archive’s official website at www.koreafilm.org, not to be confused with www.koreanfilm.org which contains a wealth of reviews and information. Happy hunting!

Anthony McGee

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