The Movie Waffler First Look Review - BEASTS CLAWING AT STRAWS | The Movie Waffler

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First Look Review - BEASTS CLAWING AT STRAWS

beasts clawing at straws review
A group of underworld figures are drawn together by a bag filled with cash.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Kim Yong-hoon

Starring: Jeon Do-yeon, Jung Woo-sung, Bae Sung-woo, Yun Yuh-jung, Jung Man-sik, Jin Gyeong, Shin Hyun-been, Kim Jun-han, Jung Ga-ram, Park Ji-hwan, Heo Dong-won

beasts clawing at straws poster

Here’s one for you: what would you do if you chanced upon a heavy looking bag, which, upon further investigation, turned out to be stuffed full of used bills? I bet you’ve already thought about this, though, and how you’d play it. The exact shade of nonchalance you would affect as you pick the bag up, the careful scope of the surrounding area for prying eyes, and then finally fantasising over what you’d spend the happenstance fortune upon (I always envision spending it on similarly illegal stuff for some reason - like putting hits out on my enemies. Corruption really is a slippery slope!). But I’m here to tell you: don’t pick up the bag. Put it back. Leave it alone. If there is one thing I have learned via crime drama it is that nothing good ever comes from taking that illicit holdall. Pulp Fiction (ish), No Country for Old Men, A Simple Plan (my favourite, based on the imperial source material by Scott Smith. Please Mr Smith, all I want for Christmas is for you to write another gut-wrenching novel instead of strangely paced films for Keanu Reeves). Oddly enough, in American cinema, plots where protagonists get money through other ill means - gangsterism, stock exchange shenanigans (cf. the works of Scorsese) - balance morality tale telling with aspirational glamour. Perhaps within American cultural mythologies, so deeply entrenched in capitalist ideologies, the idea of just chancing upon a fortune is anathema: fair or foul, it must be earned.

beasts clawing at straws review

In the opening sequences of the South Korean (a country defined by its diametric opposition to the North’s communist regime) Beasts Clawing at Straws (writer/director Yong-hoon Kim), that fateful kitbag turns up again, this time in the mottled heraldry of Louis Vuitton and located stuffed in a sauna locker by already defeated desk clerk Jung-Man (Sung-Woo Bae), who begrudgingly works there. Jung-Man is given a hard time by his bullying employee, has a sick mother who assaults his partner, and lives in a house that is falling apart. I mean, come on, he deserves a bit of luck, doesn’t he? No way, Jung-Man. Sorry, I don’t make the rules of the bag trope: I just enjoy watching the simmering fall out caused by it.

beasts clawing at straws review

And what a resplendent example of that moral darkness is Beasts Clawing at Straws! The jigsaw narrative splits into three main fragments following a connected series of characters, all held together in that bulging Vuitton knock-off: the compromised Jung-Man, a customs agent Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) in hock to violent loanshark Mr. Park (Jung Man-sik), and (in the best story) Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-been), an escort whose client offers to murder her abusive husband so they can split the insurance money.


Yes, there’s nothing especially ‘new’ here, but the non-linear storytelling arranges the crossovers and coincidences in a way that gives them an urgency and freshness. Yong-hoon Kim also presents these recognizable elements with a knowing sense of fun, allowing us to guess where the familiar iconography and archetypes will lead...

beasts clawing at straws review

It is also rather beautifully filmed with thick neon-noir colour stylings and a running motif of water: dense rain, spa dates, the ocean. To expound the metaphor, certain characters are also named after fish. This latter aspect is especially telling, as a concurrent theme is characters chowing down on various sea food, either in classy joints or at the (amazing looking) street food stands that dot the city; the film’s visual language informing us always of the democratic, Darwinian nature of crime and violence. In Beasts Clawing at Straws no deed, good or bad, goes unpunished, but it is so cheerful in its utterly cynical view of the world that you cannot help but thrill along with it all.

But seriously, best to leave that bag alone in the future, yeah?

Beasts Clawing at Straws is on US DVD/Digital now. A UK/ROI release has yet to be announced.

2020 movie reviews