Writer/director Kim Yong-hoon’s feature debut Beasts Clawing At Straws (Jipuragirado japgo sipeun jimseungdeul) opens with a bravura tracking shot. A person walks into a sauna complex, and places a Louis Vuitton bag into a locker – and the mobile camera cleaves not so much to the person (who is mostly out of shot) as to the bag itself. After this, Joong-man (Bae Seong-woo), a middle-aged man working as a night cleaner, finds the bag while checking the lockers, and discovers that it is full of hard cash (even as a television playing in the background features news reports of human body parts found by a lake, a man run over by a garbage truck, and another man arrested for stealing investment money). This sequence is programmatic. Not only does it introduce us to a world of violence, crime and mystery (who was carrying the bag?), but it also, through camerawork alone, encourages us to follow the money.
In fact, all the characters in this six-part caper are doing just that: following the money. As the impoverished but essentially decent Joong-man must decide what to do about his discovery while juggling problems he has at home with his ailing mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) and a wife (Jin Kyung) who constantly attracts Soon-ja’s aggressive disapproval, others are far more ruthless in their pursuit of cash. Stuck with having to pay off his vanished girlfriend’s debts to vicious loan shark Park Doo-man (Jung Man-sik), customs officer Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung, Asura: The City of Madness) turns desperately to his distant relative Carp (Park Ji-hwan) for help with tricking a fugitive ‘sucker’ out of his embezzled money – even as a police detective circles. Meanwhile bar hostess Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin) recruits infatuated young client Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram) – an illegal immigrant from China – to assist in arranging a fatal ‘accident’ for her abusive husband. While Jin-tae is in it for love, Mi-ran is doing this purely for the insurance payout, and if she is something of a novice as a femme fatale, she gets advice – and a matching shark tattoo – from her more experienced boss at the bar (Jeon Do-yeon).
Although told in an order that is not strictly chronological, these different stories are all thematically linked by the desire for money and escape, and occasionally their narrative trajectories sideswipe one another with an anarchic impact that parallels the lawlessness of the characters. Adapted from Japanese author Keisuke Sone’s 2011 novel Waranimosugaru Kenomatachi, Kim’s film falls somewhere between the overlapping ensemble antics of Quentin Tarantino, the chaotic clusterfucks of the Coen brothers and the money-chasing mania of Liu Jian’s animated Have A Nice Day (Hao jile, 2017). Doomed by their own wayward pursuit of ill-gotten gains, all the characters here are on barrelling descents towards sticky ends, and so together their plots form a messily moral mosaic, lit in noirish neons, of greed’s corrupting power. Yet despite all the blood and butchery, Beasts Clawing At Straws comes over less as tragedy than as dark comedy, with Nene Kang’s jauntily Herrmann-esque score setting just the right tone of ironic playfulness.
“If you’re alive,” observes Soon-ja, who herself survived the Korean War, “things will work out. With two arms and two legs, you can start over.” Here not everyone does remain alive, let alone with their limbs intact – but those that do have a second chance, and might see their luck change. Beasts Clawing At Straws ends as it begins – with the camera following that bag full of money. This is a karmic circle that is not so much closed as ever revolving – and if much of what has unfolded here has been ruled by coincidence and the unfortunate collision of different driving interests, there remains the impression, graphically illustrated in one late scene, that here good luck does not strike twice, and that eventually sin catches up with everyone. It serves as a colourful critique of the capitalist free-for-all that underpins Korean society, where even the dirty money that trickles down to those who really need it comes at a price that may be too high to pay. It is also an elegantly shot, rambunctiously elaborated tale (or three) told with good humour and a real sense of panache, ensuring that Kim Yong-hoon is a filmmaker to watch.
© Anton Bitel