Beasts Clawing At Straws

****

Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Beasts Clawing At Straws
"As a directorial debut from writer and director Kim Yong Hoon, this is about as good as it gets."

Is there a moral to Beasts Clawing At Straws? It would be nice to imagine that after nearly two hours of carnage, there was something in this crime caper – or maybe odyssey – from which a naïve viewer might draw inspiration. Or just take a salutary lesson.

Something a little more exalted, perhaps, than: if you work with crooks, don’t expect it to end well. Also, a recurrent theme that has turned up recently in other Eastern crime drama: do not put all your hard-earned loot into a handy holdall, since something bad is bound to happen to whoever has the bag at any given moment in time and, well, a holdall is so…transferable!

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At any rate, the Beasts of the title are a motley collection of low-lifes. For some, this is career choice. Ruthless madame, Yeon-Hee (Jeon Do-yeon) tells a tale early on of the shark that gestates dozens of baby sharks in its womb but only gives birth to one. Because the darling baby sharks have eaten one another before their zero’th birthday. And you just know, from the shark tattoo that Yeon-hee bears upon her thigh that there was a very pointed point to that story.

In the taxonomy of eat or be eaten, by contrast, Mi Ran (Shin Hyun-been) is very much on the side of the eaten. No more spoilers: but after working her way through a less than cunning plan to do away with her abusive husband, she is just next in line to get snapped up by Yeon-Hee. (Trigger warning: this film includes themes of domestic violence alongside all the rest of the violence).

But whose story is it? The film unwinds across six neatly rounded chapters. Debt, Sucker, Food Chain, Shark, Lucky Strike and Money Bag.

To begin, you would be forgiven for imagining that this is the tale of Jung-man (Sung-woo Bae), the struggling restaurant owner who is beast not through choice, but from necessity. In his case, the necessity of caring for his ailing Alzheimer-afflicted mother, whilst also dealing with an absolute a’hole of a boss. Jung-man it is who appears to set this story in motion by finding a bag of cash, unclaimed at the end of the day, in a locker at the gym where he works.

Or is it the story of Tae-Young (Jung Woo-Sung), the corrupt port official who owes money to a homicidal mob boss and whose efforts to make good his debts grow increasingly more frantic as the deadline looms? Or even, perhaps, the story of the Colombo-esque cop who turns up at the worst possible moments to cadge sushi or beer off Tae-Young and hint darkly that at any minute he may be about to make an arrest.

Oh what a tangled web. And, in the end, the story is about all of these and none of them. Really it is the story of a holdall full of cash – an eye-watering, life-changing amount of cash – and how it moves from carrier to carrier, leaving chaos and, yes, murder in its wake. Because for that amount of money, who would you not stab, kill or dismember?

It is film noir, with more than a slight hat tip to US films that have gone before in this genre. At times, Fargo (the film) sprang to mind, as Beasts Clawing At Straws has about it the same deadpan, darkly humorous vibe. Take it seriously and you have to run screaming from what you are viewing. Step back and consider the ludicrousness of the on-screen machinations and you might even start to see the funny side. To multiple murders!

Do stick with it. Because there are bits of this film where you may find yourself getting lost in some of the plot twists and turns. It helps to realise that the events taking place in different plot streams are not simultaneous. That they are, in fact, different time-lines and some of the action took place earlier - in some instances, much earlier.

Also, as the various strands come together at the end, you realise, with a certain satisfaction, that what first seemed a random jumble of crime and “clawing at straws” has, at its heart, just one single narrative.

As a directorial debut from writer and director Kim Yong-hoon, this is about as good as it gets. If you enjoy crime capers and don’t get over-icked by loads of blood, this is a good way to pass an evening.

Reviewed on: 24 Oct 2020
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Beasts Clawing At Straws packshot
A Louis Vuitton bag stuffed full of cash sends a group of hard-luck lowlifes on a desperate chase for fortune.

Director: Kim Yong-Hoon

Writer: Yong-Hoon Kim, Keisuke Sone

Starring: Jeon Do-yeon, Jung Woo-sung, Bae Sung-woo, Yun Yuh-jung, Jung Man-sik, Jin Gyeong, Shin Hyun-been, Kim Jun-han, Jung Ga-ram, Park Ji-hwan, Heo Dong-won, Bae Jin-woong, Jang Eui-don

Year: 2020

Runtime: 108 minutes

Country: South Korea

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