Beasts Clawing at Straws also goes by the English-language title of Beasts That Cling to the Straw but Rats in a Sack would also be a useful way of translating its original Korean title. It’s a story about different sets of people, all connected by a Louis Vuitton holdall full of cash, which we first see in the movie’s opening shot. Then, in 1960s heist-movie opening-credit style, the camera follows the holdall at its level while an unidentified someone carries it to a left luggage locker and leaves it there. As the movie ends, the bag is once again picked up and the camera follows it, again at bag height, off out onto its further adventures, where it will doubtless be spreading more mayhem and getting a whole lot more people killed.
But that’s for another movie. To get back to this one, we meet three different people, all in the sort of trouble that money can fix. Joong-man (Bae Sung-woo) is a cleaner with an aged and difficult mother at home, where his wife struggles to take care of the abusive and cantankerous old woman. In a brothel, pretty star turn Mi-ran (Shin Hyon bin) is a married woman who is regularly taking a beating at home from her asshole husband. At the airport, Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) is a customs official who owes a massive amount of money to a violent gangster.
In six distinctive chapters – Debts, Bait, Food Chain, Shark, Lucky Strike and Money Bag – debut writer/director Kim Yong-hoon first expands and works through each of these stories individually, giving each protagonist a chance to demonstrate their poor decision-making skills as they come into contact with “the bag”, then adds in a touch of dumb luck for good measure, before starting to connect all three stories up, upping the bloodletting as he goes.
Tonally, things have shifted from what looked like a 1960s heist movie into something more like a 1940s thriller, except lit up like a Hong Kong movie from the 1990s. So – pools of shadow matching the dark motivation of people’s souls, with bright splashes of lurid colour. Primal drives in primary colours.
The Coen brothers spring to mind, in their Blood Simple/Raising Arizona homage years, or Tarantino, Kim slaloming between the tense and the flippantly comic – a touch of Bong Joon Ho’s 2003 classic Memories of Murder in there, maybe? – with a demonstration of a skilful knowledge of genre boundaries. He skips into gruesome, thrillerish territory only to skip back out a minute or two later, Nene Kang’s score indicating the change of mood – Bernard Herrmann urgency here, Lalo Schifrin flippancy there – in case you hadn’t spotted it.
Clichés abound. The loquacious gangster, the tart with a heart, the unstoppable silent henchman. But Kim plays with them (and us) while occasionally wheeling out choreographed cameras and slick editing in set pieces where he demonstrates what an accomplished director he is, if the more subtle stuff hadn’t convinced you already.
Focus hard on the opening set-ups and you will be rewarded. The scene-setting is so familiar-looking that it’s easy not to fully take in all the details about these three characters. Half-watch at your peril. The fact that the timelines appear to be slightly wonky doesn’t help at first either, but all eventually becomes clear and in retrospect everything does actually make sense.
Really, at bottom, it’s a comedy, with lots of blood and the odd bit of gruesomeness and big performances that are entirely in keeping with the film’s ethos. This is actors as chess pieces in a director’s tightly constructed, storyboard-driven scenario – “cattle”, as Hitchcock put it, perhaps deliberately to goad thespians of the Method era – not actors as storytellers seeking their truth by interrogating the text etc.
Enjoy the spectacle, in other words.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021