지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들「Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jibseungdeul」
Running Time: 108 mins.
Release Date: February 19th, 2020
Director: Kim Yong-hoon
Writer: Kim Yong-hoon (Screenplay), Keisuke Sone (Original Novel – 藁にもすがる獣たち)
Starring: Jeon Do-yeon (Yeon-hee), Jung Woo-sing (Tae-young), Bae Sung-woo (Jung-man), Jung Ga-ram (Jin-Tae), Kyung Jin (Young-Seon),
Crime thriller Beasts Clawing at Straws is the debut feature of director Kim Yong-hoon and while he may be new name on the scene what is on the screen has all of the narrative slickness and stylistic panache associated with Korean cinema to ensure it stands with the best of his nation’s crime films.
Based on a Japanese novel by Keisuke Sone, it’s hard to imagine a director from Japan, outside of Takeshi Kitano or Tetsuya Nakashima, being able to do this hard-boiled story with the grit, the grue, the darkness, the bouncy pacing and the wry sense of humour that seems more natural for modern Korean film-makers and Kim applies these elements to a collection of morally compromised characters colliding with each other as they all chase a Louis Vuitton Boston bag stuffed to the brim with cash.
“For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
This line from the Bible perfectly sums up what happens to a range of people from the port city of Pyeongtaek as they tear around the city putting themselves in increasingly perilous situations to get their grubby paws on cash that promises to be their escape from desperate straits.
There is Jun-man (Bae Sung-Woo), a middle-aged man patiently struggling with a difficult elderly parent and a demanding kid with university fees to pay while he has little but the measly wages from his part-time work at a sauna and his exhausted wife’s cleaning job. Beautiful Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-Bin) is a woman who moonlights as a hostess because she is shackled by debt which is the excuse used for vicious bouts of domestic violence by her sadistic husband. Then there is Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung), a charismatic border patrol officer who has a week to deliver a lot of cash to stab-happy gangsters he is in debt to after co-signing a loan with his beloved girlfriend Yong-hee (Jeon Do-yeon) who took the cash and walked out on him. Each character gets sight of the cash and each struggles to get it.
Split into a series of chapters with ominous titles such as “Debt” and “Bait” that describe direness of the circumstances the characters are trapped in, the film cuts between their various subplots which are filled with treachery and danger as they are pushed into an increasingly frenzied conflict over the money. It is done in such a way as to make these stories feel as if they are happening linearly but drive-by exposition from grisly news reports give us clues as to the timeline and some foreshadowing of future events in what is a carefully constructed non-linear narrative.
When the various subplots crash together, it’s usually a shock that fills the film with a lingering tension as we watch the characters, whom we’ve seen betray and hurt others already, interact. Suffice it to say that when everyone is linked together, the ending, which is reportedly different from the book, is both horrifying and gratifying as money and blood continue to flow.
It’s a film full of betrayals and counter-betrayals between people as their precarious lives and increasingly reckless attempts at getting the cash bring out their claws. Each character is cut from normality, distinctly drawn and believably flawed and these character flaws, whether hubris or too much decency, provide the angles of betrayal to wring the most tension from the film and often times laughter as egos clash and their is a madcap scramble to get on top of a situation based on wits and bluffing.
The vices and reasons for their actions are rooted in real-world problems which makes the characters sympathetic which means that, as the bloody violence crescendos and becomes gruesome and the storyline encompasses bawdy cops and laconic gangsters in the Kitano mould, we feel for them as they place themselves in danger and we gasp as they shed their humanity. But it would be a mistake for audience members to get too attached as the film has no problem betraying expectations and utilising its cast of desperate characters to suddenly and violently off people, making this a highly unpredictable thrill ride.
The film’s aesthetics are a mix of the neon-lit nightlife of bars and floodlit ports common to Korean crime films mixed with the humdrum domestic that shows the character’s dingy lives and troubles. These are welcome nods to normality and also really good at character building. The set design seen in Tae-young’s messy bachelor pad, which is transformed from desolate and dirty to a comfortable home by a woman’s touch, speaks to how love can transform life while Jun-man’s cosy home is full of family photos and household objects that lurk Chekhov gun-like, to inflict a lot of pain on people. And that Boston bag with its distinctive pattern… That’s a death sentence if the wrong people see it. Everything shown is intelligently utilised by the plot of tells you something about the characters and so it’s even more engaging beyond the story.
In the world of Beasts Clawing at Straws, trusting someone is a sure way to get in debt, loving the wrong person can get you killed, and being honest won’t help as the only truth is money and people will do anything to get it. The seemingly most trustworthy people can turn out to be the biggest predators and watching everyone devour each other over the money provides head-spinning twists and heart-rending turns.
Having won the special jury award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and having been invited to Berlinale 2020, it was one of the international breakout titles from Korea before covid-19 hit. My anticipation was high going in and the film did not disappoint as it delivered the thrills and spills of a crime story, especially because it is packaged with that Korean bravura action and style. Definitely recommended.