Regardless of whether or not director Im Sang-soo has met any real-life chaebol families, this is how he imagines their lives to be in his latest drama: They have a Philippines-born housemaid, are ruthlessly immoral, commit murder with no shame, speak Korean with a smattering of English, and are utterly unhappy.
Just a couple of days before the opening of this year’s Cannes film festival, Im’s “Taste of Money,” which has been invited to the film fest’s competition section along with Hong Sang-soo’s “In another Country,” was unveiled in Seoul.
The film is a disturbing portrait of a contemporary chaebol family, complemented by his impeccable use of mis-en-scene and kitschy script lines.
Despite Im’s obvious efforts to make this film socially conscious -- throwing in scenes here and there that remind one of the real-life suicide case of the late actress Jang Ja-yeon and a chaebol’s bribing of politicians -- the film lacks substance as none of its characters -- including the villains -- are layered enough to generate any real complexity.
A scene from director Im Sang-soo’s “Taste of Money” (FILMPASMAL)
A scene from director Hong Sang-soo’s “In Another Country” (JEONWONSA FILM CO)
The movie is firmly based on Im’s own belief -- it’s unclear where and how he formed it -- that a chaebol family cannot possibly be happy, mostly because of their unbearable wealth, and its members must be troubled and abusive toward others. As a result, the movie reveals Im’s rather poor imagination of chaebol families and their lifestyle -- it’s almost as if the characters are punished with unhappiness and boredom for how much money they have.
The film pivots around the life of a young man named Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo), who works as a private secretary for chaebol heiress Geum-ok (Yoon Yeo-jeong). Upon finding out her husband Yoon (Baek Yoon-sik) is having an affair with their Filipino housemaid Eva (Maui Taylor), Geum-ok forces Young-jak to sleep with her. Upon finding out Eva is pregnant with Yoon’s child, Guem-ok commits a murder with no shame. Both Geum-ok and Yoon are foolish and flat, not knowing what to do about things that cannot be bought. Their foolishness generates dark humor throughout the running time, providing ample entertainment.
It is clear that Im wants to mock chaebol. One of the reasons why Im fails to produce a convincing portrait of a chaebol family is because his presentation of “upper-class” culture is simply too predictable, if not ridiculous.
Guem-ok acts more like a greedy parvenu than an heiress, lacking taste and intelligence. Her two children speak vulgarly, which is in fact painful to hear, frequently using English swear words and phrases. One of Yoon’s ways of killing his boredom is to hold sex parties. Such a depiction doesn’t add anything new to the news stories and TV drama shows that have more than amply dealt with chaebol in the past. Im takes the in-your-face approach, forcing the viewers to face what he thinks is the disturbing truth.
In many ways, “Taste of Money” is the sequel of Im’s 2010 drama “The Housemaid” -- which was a re-make of director Kim Ki-young’s 1960 movie of the same title. Geum-ok’s daughter, Nami (Kim Hyo-jin), turns out to be the little girl at the end of the 2010 film. Im in fact received his first invitation to Cannes for the same competition section for “The Housemaid” that year.
In “Taste of Money,” Nami is the only member of the family who has developed a moral sense. But she, too, fails to make the movie convincing, as the young woman completely relies on her parents’ money while despising them at the same time. As the ending credits roll, it’s hard to figure out if you have learned anything new about chaebol -- the movie does not offer any realistic glimpse into lives behind them.
Just a day after the premiere of “Taste of Money,” another Cannes-nominated Korean movie had its first press screening in Seoul. “In Another Country,” by Hong Sang-soo and featuring French actress Isabelle Huppert, tells the story of three French women -- all named “Anne”-- who visit Korea’s remote beach town called Mohang.
Huppert, a two-time winner of the Best Actress prize at Cannes, agreed to star in Hong’s movie during her visit to Seoul last year. The actress was here in May 2012 to attend the opening of a photo exhibition which featured some 110 photographs of her taken by the world’s renowned photographers. During her stay, Huppert met up with Hong and signed the deal.
Huppert and Hong reportedly have been friends since their first encounter at Cannes a few years ago.
In the movie, Huppert delivers three different French women: A renowned filmmaker; a docile married woman having an affair with a Korean man; and an unhappy divorcee who lost her husband to a Korean woman while living in France. All three are received in a similar manner by the locals of the beach town.
Despite the three women’s different backgrounds and personalities, their individual qualities are hardly recognized. Instead, the locals are unnaturally kind to a singular Anne. When she asks to borrow an umbrella, she is told to keep it. She receives a sandwich which she never asked for, and is asked if she wants to have a lifeguard’s tent when she simply compliments it.
“I’m also like that in real life,” said Hong, when asked if he also offers to give his personal objects to foreigners he randomly encounters. “I exaggerated the way we try to be nice to foreigners.”
Using Hong’s signature repetition and variation, the movie engagingly delivers the shared Korean experience with foreign visitors, from awkward greetings to forced kindness, and unexpressed prejudices and stereotypes.
“We all kind of act the same whenever we run into foreigners,” said Hong. “And those moments and behavior are easily repeated by others when they encounter a foreigner. I was curious to find out what the result would be if I had the characters in the movie exaggerate those behaviors.”
Veteran actress Yoon Yeo-jeong, who stars as the ruthless chaebol heiress in “Taste of Money,” also appears in “In Another Country” in a minor role as a folklore studies professor. The 65-year-old actress made reporters laugh during a press meeting on Wednesday when she made a confession.
“Actresses and actors are supposed to be the happiest when they are working on great movies,” she said.
“But I actually enjoy lunch breaks a lot more than the filming itself.”
“The Taste of Money” opened in local theaters on Thursday, while “In Another Country” opens on May 31.
By Claire Lee (email@example.com)