A great film hampered by its reliance on English dialogue
To prepare for this review, I watched three of director Im Sang-Soo's older films: A Good Lawyer's Wife, The President's Last Bang, and The Housemaid. I'd heard good things about all of them, and a new release by the director pushed me to finally see them. There are a lot of common threads between them, but the most prevalent seems to be a constant air of eroticism. Given that the description of The Taste of Money promised an "erotic thriller," I thought that I would use this review as a way to talk about eroticism and sex within films.
But despite the fact that The Taste of Money has plenty of sex and erotic content, that didn't strike me in the same way as the language that the characters were using did. Maybe I'll write about sex another day. For the moment, let's talk about English.
The Taste of Money (Donui Mat | 돈의 맛)
The Taste of Money is, in many ways, Im Sang-Soo's English-language debut. Although the majority of the dialogue is in Korean, there is so much English spoken throughout that there is a clear commitment to bilingualism. This is unfortunate, because Im Sang-Soo (who also wrote the film) doesn't seem to have mastered the English language. I've seen a lot in Korean films where bits and pieces of English dialogue have been put in, and it almost never works. With the exception of Bong Joon-Ho, whose excellent film The Host mixed languages to great effect, it seems like Korean directors are just unable to pull believable English performances from their actors. In films where this is relegated to a scene or two, it is just an anomaly, creating an awkward barrier for native English speakers that quickly fades and is mostly forgotten. As I said before, that is not the case with The Taste of Money.
Nearly every character in The Taste of Money speaks English to some degree. Some characters know a few key words, some seem to have conversational understandings, and others appear to be fluent. Only one of them, an American, speaks English as a first language. It feels somewhat strange assigning the blame for actors' failings on the writer/director, but the poor language skills on display in the film really do fall on Im Sang-Soo's shoulders. As the man who both chose the language and the line delivery, he is entirely to blame for the fact that so much of the dialogue comes across as stilted and uncomfortable. It is clear that most of the actors don't speak English very well, and I would completely believe it if someone told me this was a lot of their first forays into speaking the language extensively. But it is up to the director to teach the actors the proper inflections and nuances of the language that they're going to be speaking.
This discomfort on the part of the language also affects the actual performances of the actors as well. In the scenes where the Korean and Filipino actors are speaking English, their characters tend to break a bit. Their acting is less emotional and their personas seem less defined. While their own language flows naturally, the English does not. You can see the effort that the actors are putting into performing in a language they don't know very well, and while it's admirable, it also decreases the film's overall impact. Bizarrely, the one native English speaker, played by film critic Darcy Paquet, worked best when he was speaking Korean (which he appears to be fluent in). His acting was middling at best, and when I didn't understand what he was saying, I couldn't take issue with his tone the way I could when he was speaking English.
Because of that, I'd be interested to find out how a Korean viewer with no grasp of English (relying on subtitling to understand those scenes) would see this film. That viewer wouldn't understand the awkward inflections and stilted dialogue. Perhaps Mr. Paquet's Korean is not as good as it seems and that viewer would take issue with him the way I take issue with anyone else. For all I know, the subtitles would actually improve the way those scenes play out (which is not unheard of).
On the most fundamental level, though, the issue is that I just don't understand why so much of the dialogue is in English. Certain conversations will go back and forth a line-to-line basis, and it's never clear why. It made sense that a Korean person would greet an American in English; it didn't make sense when the American responded in Korean. And so on and so forth. With the exception of a Filipino character who did not speak Korean, thus forcing her (and those wishing to speak to her) to speak English, the character's decision to use one language or the other was never clear. It was obviously a conscious decision to do it that way, and maybe it has to do with the power of English as a language, but even if its use is significant in ways I don't understand, that doesn't excuse how poorly it plays out.
But enough about that. Around the language, The Taste of Money builds quite a compelling (and, yes, erotic) thriller that deals with the corrupting power of money. It's hardly the most original of ideas, but the cast is not quite the usual. Although it obviously focuses on the up-and-comer (Kim Kang-Woo) who initially refuses to get caught up in the corruption, it's far more intimate than the idea of a multi-billion dollar corporation might give. This corporation falls largely in the hands of the Yoon family, and the film centers around them. The way money is used to buy off some people (and keep others happy) again seems somewhat familiar, but the film is mostly confined to a mansion. These people aren't meeting in their office; they're meeting at the pool or in the living room. It's one hell of a house, but it still keeps things on a smaller scale than most films with similar themes.
Visually, The Taste of Money is beautifully composed from start to finish. What Im Sang-Soo lacks in his understanding of English, he more than makes up for in his understanding of the language of cinema. Even when their acting was awkward, the actors themselves looked fantastic, and so did basically everything else. It definitely helps that the mansion the Yoon family lives in is one of the most gorgeous places I've ever seen. If you want a treat for the eyes, you should look no further.
The Taste of Money is a good film that should be a great one. Perhaps to that fictional Korean viewer, it is the great film that it oftentimes dares to be. But despite the bad things I've said, I still absolutely recommend the film. American audiences have heard the "money corrupts everything" story probably a few too many times, but the Korean sensibilities that Im Sang-Soo brings to this film make it stand out enough that it is more than worth your time.