Joong-man (Bae Seong-woo) labours at his job working at a city sauna, while caring for his ailing mother at home. When he finds a bag packed with money in an abandoned locker he thinks all of his problems have been solved at once. Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung), a customs officer heavily in debt to a local gangster, plots to defraud an old school friend to repay the money. Mi-Ran (Shin Hyun-bin), an escort with an abusive husband, sees a way to freedom when one of her clients offers to murder him.
Beasts Clawing at Straws is the directorial debut of filmmaker Kim Yong-hoon, and tells a bleakly funny trilogy of crime stories. All three are interrelated, although how they inter-connect and in what order they do so forms part of the film’s appeal. Much of the film relies on archetypes and genre conventions – nearly every character is a thinly-drawn cypher – but the dizzying knots into which the film ties itself are marvellously conceived and hugely entertaining to watch.
It is easiest to feel sorry for Joong-man, who hates his job but cannot afford to quit it, and whose mother is slowly sliding into dementia-based paranoia. Joong-man’s wife is rapidly losing patience, his mother cannot listen to reason, and his boss treats him with absolute contempt. The character is a staple of these sorts of films: sad, pathetic, and desperate. Bae Seong-woo manages to perform a sympathetic edge that keeps audience sympathy well on his side, but it is clear when he finds the bagful of cash that someone, inevitably, is going to come looking for it.
It is less easy to sympathise with Mi-ran, who begins the film the victim of a brutally violent husband but whose escape from his clutches does not stop with only one murder. The strong vein of comedy that runs through this portion of the film gets particularly black, no more so than in the shape of Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon) – a no-nonsense club manager who comes to Mi-ran’s aid. Jeon is a superb actor – the only Korean performer to win at Cannes (for Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine) and a tremendous asset to the film here. Here she is funny, intriguing, and ever-so-slightly terrifying.
Jung Man-sik is similarly strong (and funny, and terrifying) as the charming but volatile local crime boss Mr Park, who manages to weave his way into all three narratives. It takes time for the story to fully gel together – the precise set-up events does not even really become clear until halfway through – but while the first half demands some patience, the second is wall-to-wall narrative pay-offs.
Beasts Clawing at Straws appears rich with American influence – a little Tarantino here, quite a lot of the Coen brothers there – but it is also based on a Japanese novel by Sone Keisuke. Thanks to Kim’s strong direction, it all feels rather like a cross between the three cultures. Technically the film is superb, with night photography and a lot of neon lights giving each sequence a nicely seedy, disreputable atmosphere. Cinematographer Kim Tae-sung (War of the Arrows, The Admiral: Roaring Currents) does some marvellous work here.
Critics in the USA appear to be hyping Beasts Clawing at Straws as the next major breakout for North Asian cinema, and to be honest it is probably not – it is, however, another great crime film from a country that seems to have spent the last 25 years overflowing with them.