Beasts Clawing At Straws (Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jibseungdeul)
Korea (2020) Dir. Kim Young-Hoon
Money. If it didn’t exist would the world be a better place? If you think of all the trouble it causes, such as class divide and disparity, greed, envy, debt, perhaps it would make things easier if we had a different system in place (since a fairer distribution of wealth will never happen. Let’s look at a case in point.
Joong-Man (Bae Sung-Woo) works part-time at a bathhouse which isn’t enough to cover his financial troubles. Finding a bag full of money in one of the lockers, Joong-Man hides it until he can take it home. Meanwhile, customs officer Tae-Young (Jung Woo-Sung) is in debt to loan shark Mr. Park (Jung Man-sik) for the money he borrowed and gave to his girlfriend Yeon-Hee (Jeon Do-Yeon) who disappeared. Then, severed parts of a woman’s body are found in the river.
Elsewhere, Mi-Ran (Shin Hyun-Bin) who lost a lot of money in the stock market works at a hostess bar run by Yeon-Hee to make ends meet. When a customer Jin-Tae (Jung Ga-Ram) takes a shine to Mi-Ran and spots her bruises courtesy of her abusive husband, he offers to kill her husband. Mi-ran accepts, but insists Jin-Tae has to make it look like an accident so she’ll get the life insurance pay off. When this goes wrong, Yeon-Hee steps into help Mi-Ran.
For his debut film, Kim Young-Hoon has chosen to adapt the Japanese novel Wara ni mo sugaru kemonotachi by Keisuke Sone, a sinuous neo noir of sorts in which a disparate group of people are bound by the same need or desire for riches. Circumstances differ greatly for this need but the end game is the same – and what a game it is too. There are no fixed rules, and even if there were, nobody seems inclined to adhere to them.
It is hard to be truly original in the genre of the crime thriller, and it has to be said Kim, and by extension Sone, tip their caps to many conventions and plot beats beholden to this style of story. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as we are caught up in our own jadedness to seeing old ideas rehashed, only for that one little swerve to make us think again, or conversely by following the route where a twist seems inevitable is equally as surprising.
Part of this – slight spoiler here – comes from what is revealed halfway through to be a non-linear narrative, a deception that works wonders in exposing how little attention we paid to the wrong things. This may have been in line with the original novel, but Kim splits the film into six chapters, all sequential rather than telling separate stories before bring them together in the end.
Discussing the plot without giving anything away is nigh on impossible, so the best we can do is look at the cast of characters involved in this sprawling web of scams and the scamming scammers who scam people. Joong-Man lost his business and is no hard up, living with his dementia-suffering mother (Yun Yuh-jung) who thinks her daughter-in-law Young-sun (Jin Kyung) is trying to kill her.
With both working menial jobs to make ends meet, and their teenage daughter refused a student grant, honest Joong-Man would find the millions stuffed into the Louis Vuitton bag too much to resist. Then we have Tae-Young who is trying to avoid being carved up by Mr. Park’s psychotic mute henchman (Bae Jin-Woong) by claiming he has a sucker lined up to rip off to get his money.
Having been burned by Yeon-Hee’s sudden disappearance, Tae-Young is another person corrupted by need for money, using his cousin Carp (Park Ji-hwan) to help set up a fugitive embezzler. Meanwhile, we find Yeon-Hee is doing very well with her hostess bar, and has taken a shine to Mi-Ran. Pretty, shy, and easily lead, Mi-Ran looks to be the ultimate victim in this entire mess until she realise the power her femininity and helplessness has over Jin-Tae, an illegal immigrant from China, and exploits it.
Thrown in a police officer from Seoul (Yoon Je-moon) investigating the chopped up body with an unusual approach questioning people, and Yeon-Hee’s intriguing story arc and we have all the ingredients for an eventful crime mystery where the only winners are us, the audience. One can see elements of the modern take of the genre in various places, often given a black comedy make over to avoid coming across as parody, whilst Kim allows room for references to the classic motifs, like Yeon-Hee as the nominal femme fatale, for added credence.
Once the chronology settles – not until the final act – it appears no conscience has been left unsullied by the pursuit for the cash. We should be appalled by the endless deceit and betrayal that ensues but like the wistful story Yeon-Hee tells Mi-Ran about a breed of shark, this is a battle royale of the greedy and the desperate. Act like a minnow and get eaten, bare your sharp teeth and move to the top of the food chain. This analogy has a more significant meaning in what evolves into a merry-go-round of violence.
Visually, it would appear Kim has studied a wealth of other films in this genre, from his own county to Hollywood, in creating a slick yet gritty aesthetic. Neon lights are used to denote both danger and prosperity, whilst glamour equates to sex and downfall, for both genders. Tied up inside 108-minutes, it is remarkable how much Kim crams into this run time but none of it is wasted, and his cast are all on top form, Jeon Do-Yeon being the show stealer.
Compelling from start to finish, highly entertaining, and skilfully made, Beasts Clawing At Straws is a film about endless cycles, literally and figuratively. Whilst it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Kim exudes the eagerness and creative wherewithal to put his stamp on the proceedings to make him a director with promise.