In his 2010 remake of The Housemaid, director Im Sang-soo brought occasional moments of over-the-top visual invention and a lurking sense of horror-movie dread to bear on what otherwise played as a pretty straightforward tale of rich-folk misbehavior and sexual power struggles. In his latest, The Taste of Money, which can be seen as a very loose sequel to the earlier work, Im tones down the visual invention, even as his camera lingers over upper-crust opulence, and so leaves us with little but a plodding tale about elite privilege. When the central family's daughter, Nami (Kim Hyo-jin), who shares a name with her counterpart from Im's version of The Housemaid, alludes to the fiery conclusion that the family maid succumbed to in the earlier film, it's not so much a successful linking of the two cinematic worlds as it is a reminder of how The Taste of Money lacks just about all of the other movie's imaginative flair.
Instead, the representative image this time around is of two men receiving massages from bare-breasted women while holding a cocktail in their hands and discussing a dubious international business deal. This visual neatly links the carelessness with which the wealthy members of the film's world treat sex and money alike and establishes a bluntness about the movie's far-from-revelatory attitude toward the rich that gets repeated as talking points throughout. The central family, a cretinous gang of business people that run a legally and morally dubious enterprise, indeed confirm everything we think we know about the wealthy. The father and company president (Baek Yoon-sik) admits he married his wife for the money while sleeping with every young woman he can find; the mother (Youn Yuh-jung) is a vicious shrew who beds her husband's assistant, Joo Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo) and has her spouse's lover killed; and their son (On Ju-wan) is involved in dirty international dealings. Everyone fucks each other literally and figuratively.
For all the revelations about the way the rich operate, there's little juicy pleasure to be had in the proceedings. Im lets the business unfold matter of factly within his handsomely composed frames and so rarely veers from the stately to the compellingly lurid. As such, it's a dull affair, particularly when the emphasis shifts from nasty business to the possibility of moving past such moral bankruptcy by focusing on the potential couple of Young-jak, caught between corruption and moral uprightness, and the one honorable member of the family, Nami, as well as calling attention to the untenable position of Eva (Maui Taylor), the Filipino maid who the paterfamilias takes as his latest lover. But while Im's isolating of this trio produces the film's one essential scene (a car ride in which the freedom of the road allows Eva and Nami to talk frankly about men as Young-jak drives in silence), it eventually dilutes any interest the director may have generated in the inner workings of the family business. In The Taste of Money, the only thing less interesting than the corruption of the wealthy is the possibility of their redemption.