I had no idea what to expect going into Kim Yonghoon’s writing and directorial debut, Beasts Clawing at Straws, and that is probably the best way to approach this movie. That said, I can’t really talk about it without spoiling it, so for those who want to be surprised and experience this movie as intended, go watch it and then come back.
Okay, I have to assume if you’re still reading you’ve watched the movie or don’t care if I spoil it, so let’s jump in. Beast Clawing at Straws is an interesting little film that touches on the lives of desperate and/or horrible people who all end up connected through a series of unfortunate events. At the heart of the movie is a bag filled with money that several people are trying to get their hands on, but where that bag came from and where it ends up is the real rub of the film.
The movie’s narrative is not in sequential order, but this isn’t clear right away. In the broadest strokes the movie focuses on four sets of circumstances: the events surrounding Mi-ran, the prostitute who first gets the money, the prostitute’s boss, Yeon-hee, and her attempts to acquire the cash, Yeon-hee’s ex and his efforts to pay off Park, a scary gangster, and Joong-man, a family man trying to make ends meet who stumbles on the cash. Each of these scenarios have their own ins and outs, with all the threads connecting in the end.
While the story here is fairly interesting, and the non-linear approach worked to keep me engaged and guessing until the narrative timeline became clearer, which happened a little past the halfway point, I think it could have been done better. The film advertises itself as a neo-noir crime thriller, but it’s lacking the stoic anchor that is so often used to frame noir crime movies and goes for the disjointed story approach, and while the approach isn’t badly done, many of the circumstances were so outrageous that I found myself chuckling. What this film really reminded me of is something akin to Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, but played straight and serious, and I can’t help but wonder how great this film could have been had they just tweaked it a bit to be a pitch-black comedy. There was one glaringly distracting story element for me, which is how Park and Yeon-hee tracked down Joong-man, as that is never given a satisfying explanation. The narrative does leave some grey area here that could allow for an inference, but the lack of specificity felt like a reach to me, and I think an added scene or two to clarify it would have been far better. Despite this issue, I did like how Kim Yonghoon tied all the treads together and brought the story full circle back to breadcrumbs laid during the opening sequences.
Much of the violence in this movie occurs off camera, and while this isn’t a deal breaker, there were definitely times that I felt it tempered the impact of the moment to the detriment of the story. This was most keenly felt in the first two car accidents in the film and when Yeon-hee dismembers someone while they are still alive. The car accidents are shown, though not from an exterior perspective, and the aftermath of disposing of the bodies is skipped over. This could be for time or budget constraints, but I felt those scenes would have been useful for portraying the state of mind of the perpetrators, which was a wasted opportunity. Similarly, when Yeon-hee starts dismembering the person tied to her table, she starts with the leg, and we see blood spatter and then the camera cuts away. This would make sense to me if she had started with the neck, as that would have been a quick kill, but depicting this as a death that was to be gruesome and torturous but then just moving on with no detail or aftermath felt anticlimactic and wasted to me.
Visually, Beasts Clawing at Straws looks sharp, though there are not too many cinemagraphic bells and whistles. The camera work was never distracting, and there were certainly some interesting framing and angle choices, particularly in the close quarters of homes and apartments, that kept this movie from being visually stale. As this is Kim Yonghoon’s first turn at directing, I’m fairly interested to see what he does next, because this film was more polished than most directorial debuts I’ve seen.
It’s hard to talk about the acting in this movie because it truly has an ensemble cast and they all do great work, but this review would be twice as long if I tried to mention them all. So, I am going to focus on a few of my favorites and leave it at that. Bae Seong-woo plays Joong-man, and he does a great job as a down on his luck everyman. Joong-man has a mother with dementia and a family that is on hard times, and the world seems to refuse to show him compassion, which leads to desperation. Bae Seong-woo embodies this perfectly, delivering an emotional performance that easily steals the show. Yeon-hee is a woman who will be whoever is needed, and do whatever is needed, to get a payday, and Jeon Do-yeon plays her perfectly, delivering a broad, multifaceted performance that will keep you guessing as well as entertained. Lastly, Shin Hyun-been takes on the part of Mi-ran, a working girl caught between an abusive husband, a bad debt, and an incompetent boyfriend. Mi-ran has one of the more transformative roles in the movie, and Shin Hyun-been does a nice job with the role, creating a character that is sympathetic and endearing, despite her brutal actions.
Beasts Clawing at Straws is a moderately entertaining movie with a great cast and competent directing. The only thing holding it back are some minor plot holes and the story delivery, which had the potential to be so much better than it is. If you want to get a Korean take on the neo-noir genre, then this movie will fit the bill and should keep your attention, just don’t look for it to reinvent the wheel.
Beasts Clawing at Straws is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD from Artsploitation Films.