Q&A: Korea's Im Sang-Soo Returns to Cannes With Timely 'Taste Of Money'
The director takes unflinching look at contemporary Korea in his thriller about greed, sex and loyalty.
Seoul-born Im Sang-soo has been shaking things up since he arrived on the scene in 1998 with Girls Night Out. He topped the Korean box office with The Good Lawyer’s Wife, stirred up controversy in Korea with The President’s Last Bang then entered the Cannes competition with a bang in 2010 with his sexually-charged remake of thriller The Housemaid. Just two years later, Im is back in competition with The Taste of Money that shows what became of the little girl depicted in The Housemaid 20 years later. A Taste of Money focuses on power, sex and wealth in a psychological thriller with a sense of humor about a Korean upper class family and their dark secrets and inherent greed. Im talked to THR about being Korea’s resident agent provocateur, how he’s taking on his enemies one film at a time and why Cannes audiences won’t be bored with his sexually-charged taste of money and power.
THR: You’re back in Cannes after The Housemaid – do you feel pressure the second time around?
Im: No, not at all. This was a party for me. And it was a reward after last winter’s excruciatingly difficult time.
THR: The Housemaid was about rich people and their servants. The Taste of Money also explores Korean high society. How do you relate to these characters? What about this world intrigues you? Did you grow up in a similar situation?
Im: Like or not, the lives of the upper echelon are a topic of interest to the public. I am not a product of such a family, but I had a rare chance to look into their lives and this film could constitute as an anthropological report on them.
THR: Is The Taste of Money an extension The Housemaid in any way?
Im: Because The Housemaid was a remake of the original from 1960, I could not deviate too far from it and could not tell all the stories that I wanted to convey. The Taste of Money was born out of that. Do you remember the child who witnessed her own au pair engulfed in flames? The Taste of Money shows her 20 years later.
THR: What is the meaning behind your provocative title The Taste of Money?
Im: Neo-liberalism policy has destroyed the middle class in 20 years. Greed of the rich is escalating systematically, and the poor are so fixated on money in order to stay alive. Therefore, this blunt and superficial title will have a powerful impact on the Korean market. Money has that effect on modern Koreans: blunt and superficial.
THR: Is The Taste of Money a pessimistic view of society?
Im: If you’re not a very level-headed observer of the society, you may only be a pessimist. If you do not have an optimistic idea, even the most minuscule, you may not produce a film like this.
THR: How does humor fit into your cinema?
Im: I believe that a sense of humor is not obtained, but passes down with the genes. Humor within the film is the same.
THR: There’s another Sang Soo in Competition (Hong). Do you know him? Your filmmaking styles are very different. What do you think that says about Korean cinema today?
Im: Hong Sangsoo’s films always have sweet and consoling effects on me as a resident of this chaotic and loud Korean society. However, Hong has completely abandoned the Korean film industry and is working by himself independently.
THR: The film is described as “an erotic suspense drama” – how erotic is it? What can Cannes audiences expect?
Im: My film will screen at the end of the festival. When the audience members are becoming bored with elegant and arrogant films, I hope they get a chance to see the classical, pure nature of cinematic attributes in my film.
THR: And how would you describe “an Im Sang Soo” film?
Im: Even though I am an Asian, my films are inherently different from the Asian films that Europe is exposed to. And I hope that classic narrative films, that European art house filmmakers cannot produce anymore, are revitalized.
THR: When you make films, do you have international audiences in mind? What do you think makes your films universal?
Im: In this film, there is an American character named Robert and a Filipino named Eva. Even in daily life of a Seoul citizen, you can find slices of life that are very international.
THR: Tell me about the choice of actors in this film. What attracted you to them in particular?
Im: After A Good Lawyer’s Wife, Yoon has been appearing in all my films for the past 10 years. Baek’s performance in The President’s Last Bang was blissful, and I waited direly to collaborate with him once again. Kim Kang-woo and Kim Hyo-jin will become Korea’s best actors. So before they become too famous, I’d like to work with them again on a few projects.
THR: How do you think Korean cinema has evolved since you’re first started to make films? What do you think sets Korean cinema apart from other cinemas of the world?
Im: The top brass of the Korean film industry want to be like the Hollywood system. Creative directors are shunned and dumb big budget blockbusters are getting wide releases. In this current climate, Hong Sangsoo, I and several other directors are struggling to keep ourselves afloat.
THR: How do you deal with the controversy that often surrounds your films at home? Do you make films now with censorship in mind so as not to cut anything at the end?
Im: As a director, who would be afraid of controversy? I always enjoyed fighting against my detractors and enemies. But in Korea, my enemies are powerful and cunning, so I must be careful. Being a regular at Cannes is a huge arsenal to use against them. In no time, I will silence them and I will be completely free.
THR: What was your best memory of your last trip to Cannes?
Im: Family reunion at my gala screening in the Grand Theatre Lumiere. I met my brother who resides in the U.S. and my sister who lives in Leon unexpectedly for the first time in a long time.
THR: What are you looking forward to in Cannes this year? Will you be out on the town at the parties?
Im: While my film is fiercely competing at the festival, I’ll be enjoying a glass of wine at a party.
Film in Cannes: The Taste of Money
Date of birth: April 27th, 1962
Nationality: South Korean
Selected Filmography: The Housemaid (2010), The Old Garden (2007), The President’s Last Bang (2005), A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003), Tears (2001), Girl’s Night Out (1998)
Notable awards: 8th Busan Film Critics Association Awards (The Old Garden), Director of the Year: 8th Director’s Cut Awards/Best Picture: 41st Paeksang Arts Awards (The President’s Last Bang)
Best Film: 6th Deauville Asian Film Festival/Best Director: 30th Gent International Film Festival (A Good Lawyer’s Wife)