The Taste of Money (2012)

Will Kim Kang-woo come to embrace his master's contempt for money? Or will he cash in?

Still of Kim Kang-woo, Youn Yuh-jung, and Kim Hyo-jin in 'The Taste of Money (2012)'

Kim Kang-woo, Youn Yuh-jung, and Kim Hyo-jin in ‘The Taste of Money’ (2012)

Synopsis

Joo Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo) is the trusted aide to a fabulously wealthy family. He knows their secrets, and keeps them. Takes care of their dirty business. He’s worked for them over 10 years. They like him, almost as a member of their family. But to appreciate his relationship with them, pay attention to how many times he’s in the background of scenes, listening, watching, but rarely given notice and never invited to express an opinion.

The opening scene transports us into his world, as he stares with wide-eyed amazement at a vault filled with ridiculous stacks, upon stacks, of cash. As he packs two suitcases, the family’s father, Chairman Yoon (Baek Yun-shik), invites him to have a taste. He’s tempted, but he resists. And there is the key question: Will his instincts toward honesty be his redemption … or his undoing?

Next we meet his dysfunctional employers. Mother Baek Geum-ok (Youn Yuh-jung) is the money of the family, and she doesn’t let anyone forget it. The father, Chairman Yoon, is miserable in his subservient role to his cold and manipulative wife. He’s carrying on an affair with Eva (Maui Taylor), their live-in Filipina maid. The son, Yoon Chul (On Joo-wan) is aiming to inherit the business, if he can survive his reckless (and dangerously illegal) business dealings (those suitcases are for a bribe to get him out of his latest scrape). The divorced sister, Yoon Na-mi (Kim Hyo-jin) is back in the nest. While her brother follows mom’s lead, she’s an ally of her father in his misery. And she seems to have a thing for Young-jak.

It’s a slow burn as the plot wanders off in a direction we don’t expect. Mostly through Young-jak’s eyes, we see the son’s debauchery and business schemes, but these turn out to be just background noise. Along with Na-mi he learns the father’s affection for Eva is genuine, and she’s not the gold digger that stereotype would dictate. Finally, events unwind when the father makes a confession that sets the family empire at risk. And so finally this spirals into a story about a woman spurned, and the vengeance she believes she deserves.

And where will Young-jak land in between these competing interests?

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The Taste of Money’s greatest challenge is one shared by many realistic dramas of the wealthy and privileged. It’s hard to find anyone we sympathize with. Even Young-jak is hard to parse as he seems tormented over his options. Kim Kang-woo’s balanced portrayal keeps us wondering, as we should, where he will land.

In this tale of intense emotions, there’s no overacting. Youn Yuh-jung is chillingly effective as the matriarch whose coldness and capabilities we underestimate, and Baek Yun-shik evokes sympathy for a man whose actions do not elicit respect.

Be forewarned: This is a drama, not a thriller. There are no fancifully choreographed martial arts showdowns, no car chases, no last-minute cliffhangers. The one fight that does occur is completely believable and doesn’t play out as we expect, or hope for. This is a movie for you if you want to marvel at the collision of personalities and appreciate the masterfully understated and authentic acting. It’s not for you if you crave non-stop excitement and intrigue.

For myself, I enjoyed it for the way it steered mostly (though not completely) clear of cliched, expected outcomes, and in particular for a surprising and fanciful ending I admit I cannot believe but still found worth a brief smile.

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