Beasts Clawing at Straws | SLIFF 2020

A Louis Vuitton bag full of cash ruins a whole lot of lives in this twisty, twisted crime noir from South Korea. Pulling a page from early Tarantino, first time feature writer/director Kim Yong-hoon (adapting from the 2011 novel by Japanese author Keisuke Sone) uses nonlinear storytelling to follow the foibles and missteps of an ensemble cast of ordinary people and stone cold criminals either done in or tripped up by their avarice in a series of intertwining vignettes punctuated with brutal violence.

First, there’s Joong-man (Bae Seong-woo), a fortyish everyman stuck working at a spa in a grunt job that’s usually staffed by unskilled teenagers, barely scraping together enough money to support his cruel mother (Youn Yuh-jung) and his put-upon wife Young-sun (Jin Kyung). Joong-man finds the infamous bag in a locker at the end of his shift and stares in awe of the money that could change his life, but he’s a good man at heart, so he puts it in the lost and found for a few days just to make sure it’s really abandoned. A simple enough story, but things get complicated fast. There’s also Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung), a crooked port authority clerk who’s in debt to a gangster/fishmonger named Park (Jung Man-sik) and his intimidating, intestine-eating(!) assassin Catfish (Bae Jin-woong) because his girlfriend Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon) robbed him blind; he’s also tailed at every turn by Yoo Myung-goo (Yoon Je-moon), a shambolic, Columbo-esque cop. Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin), meanwhile, is a prostitute with a violently abusive husband who meets a bumbling boy from China named Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram) so smitten that Mi-ran sets out to seduce him into offing her husband to get her hands on his hefty life insurance policy, though of course nothing could be that easy.

It’s a motley crew, to be sure, and given the characters’ widely varying degrees of everyday relatability, there’s a similarly wide variation in acting styles among the ensemble, from heartfelt sincerity to cartoonish scenery chewing to stone-faced noir cool and everything in between. It probably shouldn’t work at all but it does, chiefly because Kim’s story is one that’s told in the collisions among all these disparate elements.

A word of warning: this is a movie that takes its sweet time to really get cooking. Don’t get me wrong, lots of things happen in the movie’s first hour, but much of it feels unrelated and arbitrary until those collisions start to happen and the full story starts to take shape. None of those collisions is bigger than the explosive arrival of the missing girlfriend, Yeon-hee. In a story filled with noir archetypes (the man with a heart of gold in a bad spot, the sadistic gangster, the seductive hooker, the bumbling cop, etc.), Yeon-hee is this movie’s true original, Jeon capturing this unpredictable firecracker with a performance that’s equal parts sardonic and sadistic.

The stylized though occasionally stomach-churning violence makes this a movie that’s certainly not for everybody, but anyone with happy memories of Michael Madsen grooving to Gerry Rafferty will likely be enthralled by this trip down the mean streets of Pyeongtaek. | Jason Green

Beasts Clawing at Straws is screening as part of this year’s Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival and is available to stream from November 5-22, though only in Missouri and Illinois. General admission tickets are $10, or $8 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with valid ID. To purchase a ticket or watch the trailer, click here.

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