By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - A wealthy and powerful company chairman swings open the steel door of his family bank vault, revealing tottering heaps of money to the dazzled eyes of his male secretary.
From that beginning, the raw and gritty "The Taste of Money," which was in competition at the recent Cannes Film Festival, offers up an unusually dark take on Korea's chaebol, the powerful family-run conglomerates whose products dominate domestic life and are known around the world.
It comes at a sensitive time for the chaebol, which include names such as Samsung and Hyundai and have ties to everything from smartphones to cars, restaurants and the film industry and are the focus of strong, unwelcome public attention in the run-up to the December presidential election.
As a result, the film, with its premise that wealth is a main determinant of power in South Korea and entrenched corruption is a way of life, almost didn't make it onto the screen at all, said director Im Sang-soo.
"I thought I might not be able to make this movie, but eventually I did. That's a good sign," Im told Reuters, recalling an affiliate of one of the chaebol that withdrew its funds from the movie less than a day after pledging to back it.
But in a sign of how extensive the conglomerates' reach is, Lotte Entertainment, part of the retail giant Lotte Group, is the film's distributor, and some of the funds used to film it came from chaebol-linked firms.
Though the chaebol are usually portrayed in film and television as powerful and elegant people, under Im's lens they live luxurious but corrupt and morally bankrupt lives.
"That's not what the audience expects. On TV dramas, the chaebol are mostly glamorized, or they just play some pranks and that's all," said film critic Kim Young-jin, who is also a professor at Myongji University. "But he spit on them."
"The Taste of Money" centers on the character Joo Young-jak, a secretary to chaebol head Yoon. Joo is an idealist who tries to fight the deceit and corruption around him but is soon lured into the chaebol's schemes, becoming an unwitting henchman.
Starkly shot and laced with profanity, the film shows members of the chaebol family engaging in sex parties, bribing prosecutors and even committing murder.
"I don't think anybody from so-called (chaebol) 'royal families' have read my scenario. Many Young-jaks in the middle must have been agonizing over investing in the film, worrying whether they should report this to them or not," Im said.
But public opinion has chilled towards the business groups, which are seen as the main winners in a political compact under dictator Park Chung-hee that catapulted South Korea from poverty to rich nation in a generation without giving back to society.
Park, in power from 1962 to his assassination in 1979, openly encouraged chaebol to amass economic power and near monopoly control in return for lifting Korea out of poverty.
When asked if the chaebol were moral in a recent poll by a think-tank linked to the ruling pro-business Saenuri party, 74 percent of respondents answered "negative."
Im said Young-jak represents ordinary Koreans, whose thinking has been distorted by the chaebol's pervasive power.
"People like us are depicted as Young-jak in the movie. If he, who is the star employee of one of Korea's top chaebol, cannot preserve his own dignity, it means all the Korean people are living like that," Im said.
The film, which has been sold to the United States and the United Kingdom, may have hit a nerve. It has been seen by more than 1 million people in this nation of 50 million since its May 17 premiere, according to the Korean Film Council.
Though Im acknowledges that the movie may be tough for ordinary Koreans to watch, he urges people to face reality.
"After removing the make-up, when we look at the 'real' us, it may be hard and uncomfortable to watch. And we might worry about whether things would ever get better," he said.
"But no matter how troubling it is, we can fix it only when we see ourselves."
(Editing by Elaine Lies and Bob Tourtellotte)