South Korean cinema has become the real talk of the town all of a sudden. A year ago, the cinema of Korea was only restricted to those people who knew that the Koreans knew exactly how to mix genres. With Bong Joon-ho taking away the big Academy Award win for Best Picture, the cinema of Korea is finally getting the kind of attention it always should have gotten. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that debutant director Kim Yong-hoon’s ‘Beasts Clawing at Straws‘ (Beasts That Cling to the Straw) managed to turn heads at the Rotterdam Film Festival. While it doesn’t hold a morally complex theme within its folds like ‘Parasite‘, it sure as hell is an entertaining ride from start to finish.
To throw the necessities in, the film is all about a group of greedy people trying to make ends meet by hook or crook as a bag full of money shuffles through their bounds. Slice in a couple of gangsters, tattooed-up women with killer instincts, a wrongfully indebted middle-age woman, some economy ambushed honest people, and black comedic quirk to accompany them all and you have a perfect recipe for disaster. Broken into 6 chapters that cleverly weave in and out of these 8 strangers and their respective lives, Beasts Clawing at Straws has a sense of place and tone that complements these overly grey characters constantly one-upping each other.
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To bring things into a clearer perspective, a bag full of money is found at a Sauna in the northwestern harbor city of Pyeongtaek. Jung-man (Bae Sung-woo) who works his ass-off at this sauna, in spite of being constantly grilled by his boss discovers a Louis Vuitton bag that is stacked up by more money than he has ever seen in his life. As he checks around to find no one to claim the money, he hides it in the lost and found. Jung-man and his wife have been cash-strapped due to bankruptcy. An ailing mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s and a daughter who needs college tuition fee are only the beginning of his problems. So, even though he is honest the money closes-in on his greed.
Parallelly, custom-agent Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) has been left with debt by his shady girlfriend and he is truly late to repay. The loan shark – an absolutely cracker-jack Mr. Park (Jung Man-sik) is threatening to unleash his silent, mammoth ghoul on him if he fails to return his money. With no other way around the mess, Tae-young hatches a perfect plan to trap an old friend who wants to flee the country. There’s also a classy prostitute with an even classier lady boss who somehow gets in the mix as she tries to earn easy cash to come out of a scam and an abusive relationship with her husband. When one of her clients promises to rid her of the husband, a chain of unfortunate events get triggered bringing these seemingly distinct characters together.
Based on the novel by Keisuke Sone, ‘Beasts Clawing at Straws‘ has definite remake potentials. However, before someone from the US picks it up and twists the slightly convoluted narrative into a complete mess, chance upon this South Korean entertainer that, though predictable in its proceedings cleverly toys with genre cliches and racks-up the stakes every now and then.
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For instance, it doesn’t over-indulge in its subtext of the economic slowdown in the country. It is both good and bad for the overall narrative. While it doesn’t make the film memorable, it also unclutters the extra baggage that could have unnecessarily elongated the runtime. The editing is clever and the merging of the characters with a timeline that just might surprise a lot of audiences is perfectly procured. Character traits like Tae-young’s obsession with Lucky Strike and a detective who sleepwalks into clues, keep things engaging in spite of the overall predictability and convolution to the progression.
The camera work is brilliant with a color palette that always utilizing the character motivations and the aesthetics of the town to amp up the style quotient. Some of the characters feel like caricatures but they serve the purpose of the plot’s thinly written twist and turns. The performances are almost always good with a standout performance by Jeon who plays Yeon-hee. She is absolutely breathtaking as the evil with an agenda of her own. The chameleon-like transformation in her classy madam-avatar is something that uplifts the overall fun elements of the film into something that truly stands out.
‘Beasts Clawing at Straws‘ is as deliciously fun as the ironically dark title. It doesn’t manage to reinvent anything but for what it’s worth, these beasts are fun to be with. There’s also a Coen-esque reverence here that makes for a maddening ride.
Beasts Clawing at Straws Trailer
‘BEASTS CLAWING AT STRAWS’ WAS SCREENED AT THE 2020 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL
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DIRECTOR: Kim Yong-hoon
CAST: Jeon Do-yeon, Jung Woo-sung, Bae Sung-woo, Youn Yuh-jung, Jeong Man-sik
COUNTRY: South Korea
RUNTIME: 108 MINS
LINKS: NYAFF, IMDB