In Beasts Clawing at Straws, a sex worker named Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin) conspires with an impressionable young client (Jung Ga-ram) to kill her abusive husband for the life insurance money. When things don’t go as planned, she is aided by her mysterious madame, Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon), who actually wants the money for herself. She and her boyfriend, Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung), are in debt to loan shark Mr. Park (Jung Man-sik), and while Tae-Young fruitlessly attempts to find a patsy to con, Yeon-hee sees in Mi-ran and her cash a perfect solution to their troubles, though she plans to run off with the money and screw everyone else over by the end. And because the film is non-linear (though shy to admit it, at first), we know that somehow this cash, stuffed into a Louis Vuitton overnight bag, ends up in the hands of a frustrated and underappreciated sauna worker with a host of his own problems for which he needs money to solve, and who doesn’t yet know he’s a sitting duck.
Puzzle box narratives can be amusing. They get you involved and excited to see the eventual synthesis of storylines, much like watching a hazy and undefined painting finally come together, although the majority of films, Beasts Clawing at Straws included, have no real reason to be structured this way. At the same time, the film would be completely forgettable without this device. In chronological order, Beasts Clawing at Straws amounts to very little— not an especially postmodern work or a particularly inventive neo-noir, but a surprisingly old fashioned crime caper loaded with clichés and with about as much originality as 8 Heads in a Duffle Bag or any number of post-Pulp Fiction knockoffs, only with a slickness and predilection towards nihilistic violence to provide momentary excitement.
Note that I don’t consider this structure ineffective. Indeed, it’s what saves this film from outright mediocrity. That, and three other things: a pair of excellent performances by Yoon Je-moon as a spacey detective and Jung Man-sik as the aforementioned Mr. Park—a cliche mobster role but done with a certain prickly charm that crackles on the screen (cast Joshua Jackson in the American remake)— and the score by Nene Kang, a modest but playful arrangement in the tradition of Carter Burwell (regular composer for the Coen Brothers’ films, a source of repeated comparisons in many reviews of Beasts Clawing at Straws). These additional pros have the undesired side-effect, though, of reminding you of other, better films that employed them. I kept wanting to watch Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake from 2019, made in nearby Taiwan, another neon-soaked, mad dash caper as superior in terms of cinematography, story, and characters as Tarantinois in terms of structure.
Director Kim Yong-hoon goes so far as to divide his story into chapters in order to announce how influenced by Pulp Fiction he is, only he misses the point of Tarantino’s conceit. The nonlinearity in Pulp Fiction forms an analytical response to and deconstruction of classic crime story premises and, as Godfrey Cheshire so eloquently noted in his New York Press review, performs a number of “resurrections”, bringing characters you thought long gone from the story back in as if they never left— a brilliant manifestation of the presiding themes of the film, redemption and second chances. In Beasts Clawing at Straws, Kim mimics his predecessors to no discernable end.
Reactions to Beasts Clawing at Straws have been mostly positive. While slick carnival ride movies like this are popular anyway, I also attribute its success to scarcity. We haven’t gotten many like it in the last few years, and flashy genre films like this tend to obliterate the memory of what came before it, making them seem fresher than they really are. Compounded with that, the lineup for 2020 also got obliterated and the debris scattered out into 2021, leaving scraps like Beasts Clawing at Straws behind. | Nic Champion
Kino Lorber is releasing Beasts Clawing at Straws on Blu-ray on December 15th 2020. For another perspective on the film, check out our review from this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival here.