Saturday Matinee: Beasts Clawing at Straws

Director: Kim Young-Hoon
Cast: Jeon Do-Yeon, Jung Woo-Sung, Bae Sung-Woo, Youn Yuh-Jung, Jeong Man-Sik, Shin Hyun-Bin, Jung Ga-Ram, Jin Kyung, Park Ji-Hwan, Kim Joon-Han 
Running Time: 108 min.

By Paul Bramhall

Source: City of Fire

Adapted from a Japanese novel by Keisuke Sone, Beasts Clawing at Straws marks the directorial debut of Kim Yong-hoon, who also penned the script after being impressed by the novels intertwining story. Onscreen it’s easy to see why it made for a compelling big screen outing, as an impressively cast ensemble come together for an almost Shakespearean comedy of errors that focuses on 10 characters, all of whom are looking to get their hands on a Luis Vuitton bag stuffed with cash.

Taking place in the North Western harbour city of Pyeongtaek, giving the surrounds of Beasts Clawing at Straws a welcomely different aesthetic from the usual Seoul set thrillers, we initially meet a down on his luck bathhouse worker played by Bae Sung-woo (MetamorphosisThe Great Battle). Life’s been giving Sung-woo a tough time after going bankrupt, which isn’t made any easier by living with his mother, played by Youn Yuh-jung (Minari, Keys to the Heart). Suffering from the onset of dementia, she feels sure his wife (Jin Kyung – The WitnessVeteran) is trying to kill her, and matters are confounded further by their daughter having to take a break from studying to work so she can afford the tuition fees. Sung-woo and his family are fundamentally good people, the only ones in the entire cast, however when he finds the bag in question stuffed in one of the bathhouse lockers, the contents understandably prove hard to resist.

Meanwhile a frazzled immigration officer played by Jung Woo-sung (Steel RainAsura: City of Madness) is also in debt and being pressured to repay a vicious loan shark, played by Jung Man-sik (The SwordsmanRampant). His limbs are on the line, and to make matters worse his girlfriend has disappeared, although in reality she’s running a hostess bar across town. Played by Jeon Do-yeon (The ShamelessMemories of the Sword), she’s always on the make and seems to be two steps ahead in whatever shifty deals are afoot. Working in the hostess bar is a newcomer played by Shin Hyun-bin (Seven Years of NightConfidential Assignment), a character forced into the world of hostessing after she fell victim to a financial scam, but equally to get away from her abusive husband. When a Chinese customer (Jung Ga-ram – The Odd Family: Zombie On SaleBeliever) falls for her, he offers to assist with getting rid of her violent spouse.

All of these disparate scenarios gradually end up connecting with each other in different ways across the 108 minute runtime, and for a first time director Yong-hoon does an amicable job of balancing them all in a way that lets us get to know each character just enough to be invested in them. While the synopsis may indicate that Sung-woo is as close as we get to a main character as the everyman who ends up out of his depth, onscreen we get to spend just as much time with Woo-sung as the immigration officer and Do-yeon as the hostess bar madame. It’s the first time for the pair to share the screen together, and as 2 of the most recognisable faces in Korean cinema for more than 20 years, it’s a fitting vehicle to show off their talents. Woo-sung here is in the same hyper tense state that we saw him in Asura: City of Madness (although he doesn’t end up half as bloodied), and it’s undeniably fun to see him return to this kind of role.

As with almost any production she appears in though, it’s Do-yeon that steals the show whenever she’s onscreen. One of the world’s best actresses, after recent appearances in disaster flicks like Ashfall and Emergency Declaration which offered solid but unremarkable roles, it’s a real pleasure to see her here in a role fitting to her talents. Perhaps even more ruthless than the loan sharks who turn out to be as much on her tail as they do Woo-sung’s, it’s Do-yeon’s character who lingers most in the memory as the end credits roll.

It’s also another of Do-yeon’s movies that I was reminded of the most when watching Beasts Clawing at Straws, with the whole concept of various unsavoury characters in pursuit of a stash of dubiously acquired cash recalling Ryoo Seung-wan’s 2002 crime caper No Blood No Tears. Yong-hoon employs a similar caper style feel to his debut, and despite the fact that characters repeatedly get killed off left right and centre (in various gruesome ways), the violence never feels like its breaking from the black comedy tone which is established from the outset. At its core it’s a tale of dog-eat-dog, with each dog never knowing if there’s a bigger dog just around the corner, and it’s a scenario which allows for a brisk pace and some unexpected surprises.

The tension is ratcheted up further by the arrival of a cop from Seoul looking into a dismembered body that’s washed ashore. Played by the always welcome Yoon Je-moon clocking in a special appearance, ironically the last time he clocked in a special appearance was also playing a cop alongside Jung Woo-sung in 2017’s Asura: City of Madness. Je-moon’s character, who seems just as keen on hanging out in the local hostess bars and downing a few beers, has a habit of turning up at the most inconvenient of times, pushing half the cast who are already on edge just that little bit closer to it. Indeed it’s the concoction of the characters that populate the narrative that makes Beasts Clawing at Straws so much fun, with everyone suffering from some kind of bad luck, debt, or simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time (or right, depending on which way you look at it).

The biggest surprise that Yong-hoon has up his sleeve is that it’s only revealed mid-way through that we’re in fact watching a non-linear tale play out, and have been watching a number of timelines that are playing out concurrently rather than chronologically. It’s executed in an unassuming way, and shows off first time director Yong-hoon’s strong grasp of storytelling, almost certainly making him a talent to watch out for in the future. Matched with the scripts unbiased approach to who gets killed off next, while there’s been countless movies that prove going after a bag stuffed with cash of unknown origin always turns out to be a bad idea, Beats Clawing at Straws does enough with the concept to keep it feeling fresh.

With that being said there are moments when Yong-hoon’s inexperience shows through. In particular the plot thread involving Shin Hyun-bin’s rookie escort pairing with Jung Ga-ram as the customer that falls for her, and the subsequent sub-plot that sees Ga-ram offering to kill off her husband, feels undercooked. The scenario plays out, however in the end it doesn’t feel particularly important to the overall plot, coming across more like an inconsequential aside that should have either been dropped or spent more time connecting to the bigger picture. Similarly for Youn Yuh-jung as the meddling and paranoid mother, who’s character ultimately just feels kind of there, but fails to serve any real purpose.

These are minor flaws though in what’s an undeniably fun movie, and it’s easy to imagine the tagline for its western release going something alone the lines of “No Country for Old Men meets Pulp Fiction!” There’s arguably traces of both the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking DNA throughout both the tone and structure of Beasts Clawing at Straws, but Yong-hoon’s success is that it never feels like it’s being derivative of either. The distinctive locales of hostess bars, late night saunas, and scrappy apartments forever bathed in the neon of the surrounding nightlife mean there’s no question we’re in Korean territory. With a healthy mix of black comedy, typically brutal violence, and colourful characters, the lesson on offer is one we should already know, but as a reminder to leave bags stuffed full of cash exactly where they are, Beasts Clawing at Straws is an entertaining one.

Watch Beasts Clawing at Straws on Hoopla here:

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