A Film a Week - Beasts Clawing at Straws / Jipuragirado japgo sipeun jimseungdeul

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

Jean-Luc Godard reportedly said that for a film to be successful, its filmmaker needs just two things: a woman and a gun. Kim Yong-hoon’s filmmaking debut “Beasts Clawing at Straws” features a number of women, and although it is not that high on guns which are replaced with blades, it is still an enjoyable viewing experience. A bag full of money and a bunch of people desperate enough to do everything in order to get it certainly helps to achieve it.

Beast Clawing at Straws” premiered earlier this year at IFFR, winning the Special Jury Award and further contributing to the present visibility and popularity of the Korean cinema on the festival circuit. Its expected festival tour and box office performance was impacted by the pandemic conditions, but we finally got the chance to see it at the online edition of Sarajevo Film Festival in its non-competitive Kinoscope programme.

The afore-mentioned Louis Vuitton bag is firstly found by Joong-man (Bae Seong-woo, terrific), a man clearly down on his luck who has to work at the reception desk in a modest hotel sauna. Although he seems like an honest fellow, the temptation of a windfall big enough to recover from a failed business and to move out of his demented mother’s (Yun Yuh-ying) house seems too big to resist, so he hides it in the warehouse. The loot used to belong to an in-debt customs officer Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung of “The Good the Bad the Weird” fame) who owes a lot of money to the loan shark called Mr Park (Jeong Man-sik). The money he borrowed from him disappeared along with his girlfriend Yeon-hee (played with gusto by Jeon Do-yeon, the star of “The Housemaid” and “Secret Sunshine”) who, as we learn further on, used it up to start her massage parlour / prostitution business. Other personae dramatis include the masseuse Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin), her abusive husband and her Chinese low-level gangster client Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram) eager to help her get out from the relationship by killing her husband in a fake accident so she could pick the insurance money and start a new life. A lot of duplicity ensues, followed by a number of murders and some ironic twists, while the bag and the money in it switch hands in the setting of a coastal city of Pyeongtaek.

Beasts Clawing at Straws” is divided in six chapters hopping through different timelines in a non-linear fashion. That might be the sign of the literal origins (it is based on novel by a hugely popular Japanese author Keisuke Sone), but it is also a homage to classics of the American post-modernist darkly humorous thrillers by the Coen brothers (there are echoes of both “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men” narrative-wise) told in the fashion of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” Kim tries and ultimately succeeds to emulate.

That kind of re-contextualization might be a tough bite to chew for an inexperienced filmmaker, but Kim seems like someone who knows what he is trying to achieve, even if the viewers are left in the dark for a long period of time. His basic storytelling is clever and efficient, with both the sense for particular details and wider social landscape, with the use of the colour scheme both for coding the character’s intentions and painting the worlds of the rich and the poor being one of the movie’s high points. The editor Han Mee-yeon deserves the praise for his works, and so do the cinematographer Kim Tae-sung and the production designer Han Ah-reum.

The writer-director Kim Yong-hoon is equally successful in the realization of the actors’ potentials, especially for those in the leading roles. The dynamics between Joong-man and his mother is simply brilliant thanks to Bae Seong-Woo and Yun Yuh-ying’s amazing acting, while Jeon Do-yeon’s Yeon-hee is one of the most memorable opportunistic movie psychopats recently. Jung Woo-sung is also at the top of his game as a man who is just too involved with the wrong kind of crowd to defy his unfortunate destiny.

Beast Clawing at Straws” is not a flawless masterpiece and Kim Yong-hoon has made some of the wrong steps both as a writer and as a director. Unlike his knack to highlight the ironic details in a stylish way, his treatment of the majority of the supporting characters is faulty, with most of them being sketched in a too broad manner. Also, the hard-hitting glockenspiel soundtrack is over-used in highlighting the key moments of tension and therefore too revealing. Nevertheless, it is quite a fun and a bloody movie ride about greed, lies and deception.


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