Beasts Clawing at Straws
t.l. Bestie che si aggrappano a tutto
지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들 (Jipuragi-rado japgo sipeun jimseung-deul)
South Korea, 2020, 109’, Korean
Directed by: Kim Young-hoon
Script: Kim Young-hoon
Photography (color): Kim Tae-seong
Editing: Han Mi-yeon
Art Direction: Nam Il-yeon
Music: Nene Kang
Producers: Jang Won-seok, Kim Ji-hoon
Cast: Jeon Do-yeon (Yeon-hee), Jung Woo-sung (Tae-young), Bae Seong-woo (Joong-man), Yoon Yeo-jeong (Soon-ja), Jeong Man-sik (President Park), Jin Gyeong (Young-seon), Shin Hyun-bin (Mi-ran), Jeong Ga-ram (Jin-tae), Yoon Jae-moon (detective)
Date of First Release in Territory: February 19th, 2020
Premiere status: Italian Premiere
It all starts with a Louis Vuitton bag stuffed full of cash. A worker at a small sauna in the seaside city of Pyeongtaek finds it in a locker while cleaning up after hours. His financial situation is too desperate for him to simply hand it over to the police, but on the other hand, he’s not quite reckless enough to take it home at once. Instead he puts it in a safe place where nobody else will find it, and considers his next move.
We’re familiar with stories of this type, and how the ensuing chain of events are fated to play out. What seems at first like a stroke of incredible good fortune will instead turn out to be quite the opposite. Still, the plot of Beasts Clawing at Straws is anything but predictable, partly because the canvas spreads out to encompass a wide spectrum of characters – a corrupt customs officer, an abused young woman working at a hostess bar, her scheming boss, an illegal immigrant from China, a gangster/loan shark with a mute enforcer, etc. – and partly because the screenplay combines all these clichés together into a complex and ingenious structure.
Based on a novel by Japanese crime writer Sone Keisuke, Beasts Clawing at Straws premiered at the Rotterdam film festival, where it won the Special Jury Award in the Tiger Competition, and then (unfortunately) opened in Korea just as the Covid-19 pandemic started to hit the country with full force. The film might otherwise have reached many viewers both domestically and internationally, because it highlights some of the strengths of contemporary Korean cinema while making the most out of its talented cast.
Popular star Jung Woo-sung, as the customs officer Tae-young, is initially the character who attracts the most attention. Tae-young is clearly not the most honest individual, but his efforts to extract himself from a thorny situation at least earn our sympathy. But it’s midway through the film, with the appearance of Jeon Do-yeon as the heartless Yeon-hee that the story really kicks into gear. Cunning, ruthless (as if the shark tattoo weren’t enough of a giveaway), she’s more than a match for any of the film’s other crooks and cheats. Amongst a collection of overall very solid leading and supporting performances, Jeon Do-yeon’s is the one that really lights up the screen.
Beasts is director Kim Young-hoon’s first feature film, but it’s nonetheless a slick commercial package that exudes confidence. Kim is effective at building tension and maintaining it until the very end of the running time. And thankfully, the end is worth waiting for – not so much because of clever twists lying in wait to throw the viewer off balance, but because everything converges and resolves in a satisfying way.
Kim Young-hoon studied film at Kookmin University. He worked on the production team of Jang Jin’s Righteous Ties (2006), horror film Black House (2007), and other films. His short film Delete (2015) screened at the Asiana International Short Film Festival. His debut feature Beasts Clawing at Straws won the Special Jury Award in the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Tiger Competition.
2020 – Beasts Clawing at Straws