Crime really doesn’t pay in Kim Yong-hoon’s directorial debut.
“Once is hard enough. Twice is easy.”
Opening for this year’s London East Asian Film Festival, Beasts Clawing at Straws is one of the more interesting crime thrillers I’ve seen lately, and my favourite since last year’s LEAFF offering The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil. Based on the novel of the same name by Keisuke Sone, Beasts tells a number of at first seemingly unconnected stories. In the first, Bae Seong-woo plays Joong-man, a down-on-his-luck employee of a local bathhouse who, with his wife Young-sun (Jin Kyung), spends his spare time looking after his ailing (and horribly tempered) mother. The film opens with him discovering a bag full of money in one of the lockers at work. With problems mounting at home and his position at work on the rocks, the temptation to take the bag – still unclaimed – gets bigger.
The second story deals with a worker at a hostess club named Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin) who is currently trapped in an abusive marriage. At her job she meets Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram), something of a good-hearted punk, who takes a liking to her. Together, seeing an opportunity for freedom (and a big payout from his life insurance), they plan his murder. Lastly is the story of Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung), a customs officer whose girlfriend Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon) has vanished, leaving him with her enormous debt to mob boss Park (Jung Man-sik). However, he learns that a wealthy “sucker” is attempting to flee the country to China by boat, and sets up a plan with his friend Carp (Park Ji-hwan) to scam them before they can leave.
To call Beasts Clawing at Straws a busy film is something of an understatement. The point of the film is to see how all of these converge but in order to do that, we’re treated to a very set-up heavy opening. It’s a story you have to be patient but at least it never dawdles (in telling three separate stories over 6 chapters, the film paces itself very nicely). Still, they all start off quite disparate, making it difficult to really connect to anything that’s happening. It feels like we’re watching three separate first acts because, well, we are and it doesn’t make for the most appealing beginning.
But it’s thankfully saved by having its stories all be captivating enough on their own. Joong-man’s struggles at home and his low-paying job are probably the most relatable, if the least engaging while Mi-ran’s Hitchcockian story of premeditated murder and its many, many consequences stands out and is genuinely exciting from start to finish. Tae-young’s story is more mixed, featuring some of the best sequences in the entire film (the drinking scene in the start of the third act is genuinely thrilling) and some excellent side characters but is also the least comprehensible for a large chunk of its runtime.
There’s nothing in Beasts that you haven’t seen before, but director Kim Yong-hoon is still able to farm some life from some tired tropes. His work behind the camera is excellent, especially for a debut feature, he’s got a cast that play their roles perfectly and – most importantly – he’s able to stick the landing. It’s not easy for films that this to come together neatly and while I have a couple of reservations with what would count as spoilers, it didn’t do much to tarnish the feeling of satisfaction I felt at the way everything came together by the end credits. It’s not the easiest trick to pull off, and it gets more difficult as the number of stories increases so it’s gratifying to see how Beasts wraps up.
On top of that, the movie boasts an excellent cast of characters who all bring something different to the story, played by a very strong ensemble. It has its flaws but any good film can help us see past those flaws and judge it for the sum of its parts – of which Beasts is most certainly greater than. Filled with stylish direction and great dialogue, it’s good to see a crime thriller act so cool and pull it off without embarrassing itself in the process. If you’re into Coen Brothers-esque, occasionally funny but always thrilling crime dramas, you can certainly do a lot worse than this one.
Verdict: Beasts Clawing at Straws once again proves that Korea is a powerhouse of crime thriller cinema.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Chapters: I wonder if those were directly adapted from the book or not.
Moral: Stop putting things in lockers
Beasts Clawing at Straws (2020)
Also known as: 지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들; (Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jibseungdeul), Japanese: 藁にもすがる獣たち (Wara ni mo sugaru kemonotachi)
Director: Kim Yong-hoon
Writers: Kim Yong-hoon, Keisuke Sone (novel)
Jeon Do-yeon – Yeon-hee
Jung Woo-sung – Tae-young
Youn Yuh-jung – Soon-ja
Bae Seong-woo – Joong-man
Shin Hyun-bin – Mi-ran
Jung Man-sik – Park Doo-man
Jin Kyung – Young-sun
Jung Ga-ram – Jin-tae
Bae Jin-woong – Catfish
Heo Dong-won – Manager
Kim Jun-han – Jae-hoon
Park Ji-hwan – Carp
Yoon Je-moon – Myung-goo