Archive for November, 2012

Dispatches from the Paris Korean Film Festival: The Taste of Money (2012)

With The Taste of Money, Im Sang-soo continues the portrait of South Korea’s ultra rich he started with his 2010 remake of The Housemaid. Designed like a spiritual successor to his previous film (one line of dialogue actually connects them more clearly), The Taste of Money follows the Yoons, a wealthy family controlling one of South Korea’s biggest conglomerates. The company, like the family, is ruled by Geum-ok (Yoon Yeo-jeong), the matriarch whose father—a paralyzed, wheezing man wheeled around by his personal assistant—still has a stake in the company; if Geum-ok’s husband (Baek Yoon-sik) is nominally the chairman of the board, his job consists mostly in carrying suitcases full of money to various officials so that they don’t look too closely into the company’s shady dealings.

The film actually opens with such a transaction, as the Yoons bribe a judge so that the corruption charges against their son Chul (On Joo-wan)—the CEO of the company—are dropped. This in turn allows them to resume their dealings with Robert Altman (Darcy Paquet), a corrupt American living in South Korea. Everything seems back under control, until it transpires that Chairman Yoon is having an affair with Eva (Maui Taylor), the family’s Filipino maid.

If that sounds like the synopsis to a soap opera episode, that’s because The Taste of Money, much like The Housemaid, feels a lot like a glossy soap opera to begin with. That’s not the only similarity between the two films, either. Here, like in The Housemaid, Im Sang-soo chooses to focus on an outsider to the family: in his previous film our main character was Eun-yi, the maid who falls for her employer (notice a pattern?), while here it is Joo Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo), a young man who’s worked for the family for close to a decade as a driver and a personal assistant. Like Eun-yi, Young-jak isn’t an entirely innocent character and has ambitions of his own, but he can’t imagine just how corrupt the Yoons, and particularly Geum-ok, really are. The character of Na-mi (Kim Hyo-jin), the Yoons’ divorced daughter, is also a nod to The Housemaid, in which Na-mi was the name of the girl Eun-yi was hired to look after. (Another amusing nod is the casting of Yoon Yeo-jeong, who played the sympathetic older maid in The Housemaid, to play the monstrous Geum-ok here.)

While The Housemaid was a claustrophobic thriller set almost entirely in one house, though, The Taste of Money is a sprawling, often aimless affair. At the center of it all is Young-jak, who is, sadly, a pretty bland protagonist, whose main characteristic is to be extremely good looking. (A hilarious scene has another female employee, with whom he has just had an argument, whimper and run away as he takes his shirt off, revealing his ripped chest.) Young-jak remains a passive observer for most of the movie; instead of holding the film together, this has the effect of making it seem all the more fractured.

It doesn’t help that Im Sang-soo doesn’t seem particularly interested in the business side of his story, which quickly becomes a problem when so many scenes are devoted to Chul and Altman hashing out a vague plan to establish a slush fund, and to the consequences of their actions. The affair between Yoon and Eva is clearly more interesting to the director, and for a while he has fun letting you try to figure out everyone’s motivations. That is, until he decides to have Yoon make a long speech about the whole thing, then another, then another. Yoon loves making speeches, and he’s not alone; every other character seems determined to hit you over the head with his or her own version of the film’s theme: money corrupts, and only love redeems. Nothing groundbreaking, and certainly not something that needs to be made explicit over and over again.

That’s not to say that The Taste of Money is all bad. Much like The Housemaid, it’s often trashy fun. There’s lots of sex, lots of ridiculous secrets and over-the-top twists, a truly evil villain, and if Im Sang-soo can’t quite match the brilliance and insanity of his previous film’s finale, he sure tries. The problem, of course, is that The Taste of Money isn’t much beyond trashy fun, which becomes painfully apparent as soon as the film starts lagging even a little. Or, you know, after Yoon tells you for the third time that money’s not all it’s cracked up to be.


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Dispatches from the Paris Korean Film Festival: War of the Arrows (2011)

Kim Han-min’s War of the Arrows begins the way you would expect a film with that title to begin, i.e., with a battle. The opening sequence shows the fall of a castle in 17th-century Korea, in what seems to be the waning days of a civil war (actually the conclusion of the 1623 coup that brought King Injo to power). The lord of the castle is branded a traitor for opposing Injo’s coup and murdered in front of his children, teenage Nam-yi and his younger sister Ja-in, who nevertheless manage to escape, taking with them their father’s prized bow, and to make it to Kaesong, where their father’s best friend takes them in.

Thirteen years pass, with Nam-yi (Park Hae-il, seen perhaps most notably in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and The Host) becoming an extremely talented archer but a bitter and jaded young man. When he learns that his host’s son, Seo-goon (Kim Mu-yeol) intends to marry Ja-in (Moon Chae-won), he opposes the wedding, on the grounds that he and his sister are still seen as the children of a traitor and that such a marriage would bring ruin to everyone involved. Seo-goon’s father overturns Nam-yi, though, and they go forward with the wedding.

Viewers unfamiliar with Korean history might at this point expect the film to turn into a war epic, perhaps the Korean answer to John Woo’s Red Cliff. The constant talk of Nam-yi and Ja-in’s status makes it seem as though civil war is once again brewing, and it is easy to imagine Seo-goon and Nam-yi joining forces to fight King Injo and avenge Nam-yi’s father. The film’s title, of course, only reinforces such expectations. (An alternative title is Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon, which, while quite the hyperbole, might fit the film better.)

That’s not quite what happens, though. Instead Seo-goon and Ja-in’s wedding is interrupted when a Manchu army storms the castle, killing Seo-goon’s father and capturing everyone but Nam-yi, who vows to find and rescue his sister. From then the film becomes not an epic chronicling the second Manchu invasion of Korea, but an action movie that follows Nam-yi as he mows down scores of Manchu warriors in his search for his sister.

If anything, War of the Arrows is more indebted to the western than it is to the war epic. Nam-yi is the cynical gunslinger—sorry, archer—who finds a purpose in life when he thought he had none, while Seo-goon is an awkward manchild who, when forced to face his responsibilities, finds that he is actually quite the brave and competent leader. The film is also in love with the Mexican standoff and features at least half a dozen of them, including not one, but two consecutive ones during the climax. More disturbingly, the depiction of the Manchus is reminiscent of that of Indians in pre-revisionist westerns. They’re cartoonishly evil monsters who use their prisoners for target practice, trick unarmed women and children into trying to flee so that they can ride them down and kill them, and are periodically taken by fits of maniacal laughter. Only Jyuushinta (Ryoo Seung-ryong), the Manchu general and only one to understand at once the threat Nam-yi poses, seems to have some depth and not to revel in gratuitous mayhem and destruction.

War of the Arrows doesn’t tread any particularly new ground, but what it does, it does well. The action is thrilling and doesn’t generally rely on too many close-ups and quick cuts (though there is an unfortunate scene involving a CGI tiger that looks straight out of a late-‘90s made-for-TV movie), and Nam-yi’s Green Arrow-like ability with the bow makes for some impressive sequences. The film is also surprisingly funny, most of the comic relief coming in the form of slapstick and physical comedy—a memorable fight in a high-class brothel early on in the movie ends in a most unexpected manner, and at some point we’re treated to a heavily-armed Manchu warrior fleeing in terror from a lone peasant with a rake. And if there are some uncomfortable overtones of South Korean nationalism, they’re not enough to detract from just how fun the whole thing is.

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