Beasts Clawing at Straws is a derivative, charmless bit of Tarantino-aping nonsense.
The new Korean crime thriller Beasts Clawing at Straws is a derivative, charmless bit of Tarantino-aping nonsense, a convoluted mess so in love with its own serpentine narrative machinations that it forgets to create actual characters or do anything interesting with them. First time director Kim Yong-hoon clearly likes the Coen brothers as well, as he aims for a similar kind of pitch-black gallows humor, but he just doesn’t have the chops to pull it off. The structuring device here is a bag full of cash, first stumbled upon by Joong-man (Bae Seong-woo), a janitor at an upscale men’s spa. He’s not entirely sure what to do with it, so he stashes it in the lost and found. We are then quickly introduced to Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung), a corrupt customs agent who’s in debt to a violent loan shark; Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin), a young woman stuck in an abusive marriage and forced to prostitute herself due to crippling debt; Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram), a mysterious young man who becomes Mi-ran’s lover and offers to kill her husband for her; and finally Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon), who works as Mi-ran’s madame and is also responsible for getting Tae-young into trouble with the aforementioned loan shark. Each has their own reasons for needing the money; the film’s central mystery revolves around where it came from in the first place, who’s going to get it, and when.
The actors here are almost uniformly good, each one doing what they can with roles that are either over- or under-written, but director Kim seems never to have come across a single noir cliché he doesn’t like. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in these people as characters outside of plugging them into various scenarios, each one cribbed from countless other movies and novels (that these hapless pawns are referred to as ‘beasts’ in the film’s title is certainly revealing). As we go through the motions of best laid plans gone awry, each narrative strand is mostly separate from the other, until eventually Kim threads them together and reveals that these narratives aren’t necessarily happening concurrently. Once he replays the film’s opening shot a second time at around the halfway point, it should be an ‘aha!’ moment, the kind of thing where all the pieces snap into place and the narrative crystallizes. Instead, the whole endeavor is lethargic, lacking any kind of spark or energy that might elevate this to more than just the sum of its narrative gamesmanship. The murder and double-crosses feel perfunctory, like marking off boxes on a checklist. It’s a dour, humorless affair, which ends on a bit of faux-ironic nihilism that sticks in the craw. You’re better off with a genuine provocateur like Jim Thompson or the real-deal cynicism of Blood Simple.
Originally published as part of NYAFF 2020 — Dispatch 1.