A bag full of money. A colorful assortment of strangers in hot pursuit, criss-crossing each other with explosive consequences. Where have we seen this before?
Any cinephile will know that Korean crime thriller Beasts Clawing At Straws isn’t the first movie to have its characters chase after a MacGuffin full of money. However, it’s one of Korea’s better renditions of this time-honored trope. The film deploys a seasoned cast, which includes heartthrob actor Jung Woo-sung and Cannes award winner Jeon Do-yeon, across a tightly-woven story that’s engaging, energetic, and accessible to broad audiences.
Secure The Bag
The first moments of Beasts Clawing At Straws introduce us to the story’s driving force: a Louis Vuitton bag full of 50,000 Korean Won bills. A tracking shot follows the bag through a bathhouse locker room, until it’s stuffed into a locker. It’s here that we meet Joong-man (played by Bae Sung-Woo)—a failed businessman who works at the bathhouse to support his wife, daughter, and Alzhimer’s-afflicted mother. The LV bag isn’t his, but Joong-man stumbles upon it and sees a chance to escape his family’s dire financial straits.
Next, we meet Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung), a port customs officer. Tae-young has borrowed money from Doo-man (Jeong Man-sik), a ruthless loan shark. Unfortunately, Tae-young’s girlfriend Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon) lost the money and absconded; Tae-young must pay up in a week or suffer violent consequences.
We then encounter Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin), who works as a bar hostess and comes home to an abusive husband. Mi-ran meets a Chinese-Korean customer named Jin-tae; the two grow intimate and Jin-tae resolves to free Mi-ran from her husband.
A Tautly Told Chase
Even if the film doesn’t immediately tell us how, audiences can already surmise all these individuals will lust after that LV bag of money in some way. Reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and its seven narrative sequences, Beasts Clawing At Straws contains a series of chapters (complete with title cards) that gradually but satisfyingly unravel the connections between this diverse set of characters. Writer and director Kim Yong-hoon does a great job of keeping this complex story taut. Every character helps drive the narrative forward, and the film wastes no time on unnecessary exposition.
It’s also delightfully impossible to predict what happens next in the movie. The “bag full of money” might be a well-worn trope, but Beasts Clawing At Straws arranges its characters and their motivations in a totally unique manner. Excellent storytelling combines with apt editing and good acting to imbue the movie with an energetically suspenseful momentum.
Royale With Cheese… And Bulgogi?
On the note of Pulp Fiction—Beasts Clawing At Straws contains other positive similarities to Quentin Tarantino’s movies. Tonally, Beasts offers an appealing blend of violence, goofiness, and darkness reminiscent of many Tarantino flicks. With the industrial port city of Pyeongtaek as an appropriately gritty backdrop, the film’s characters exist in an unforgiving universe where garbage trucks randomly strike people, and pushy cops from Seoul push their way into your house by pretending they really need to pee. There’s wanton violence too. The film’s wife-beating, limb dismemberment, and house burning would make Tarantino proud.
Beasts Clawing At Straws isn’t completely Tarantino-esque though. Its narrative is only slightly non-linear, and it doesn’t contain timeless monologues. That’s no issue though. These differences make Beasts Clawing At Straws far more accessible to international audiences, who might otherwise struggle to understand Korean rhetorical flourishes analogous to Pulp Fiction’s famous exchange about the Royale with Cheese.
Easy to enjoy, full of energy, and filled with suspense—Beasts Clawing At Straws should please anybody who wants an entertaining crime thriller, and offer even more value for those who enjoy Tarantino movies or MacGuffin-chasing classics like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
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Beasts Clawing At Straws (Korean: 지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들)—South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Kim Young-hoon. First released on Jan 25, 2020 at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Running time 1hr 49min. Starring Jung Woo-sung, Jeon Do-yeon, Bae Sung-woo, Youn Yuh-jung, Jeong Man-sik, Shin Hyun-been.