Synopsis: A Louis Vuitton bag stuffed full of cash sends a group of hard-luck lowlifes on a desperate chase for fortune. Fish-mongering gangsters, a greasy cop, an “innocent” gym cleaner, a scheming prostitute, her wife beater of a husband, her ruthless boss and her clueless boyfriend all violently plot to get their hands on the elusive bag.
Stars: Jeon Do-yeon, Jung Woo-sung, Bae Sung-woo , Yun Yuh-jung, Jung Man-sik, Jin Gyeong, Shin Hyun-been, Kim Jun-han, Jung Ga-ram, Park Ji-hwan, Heo Dong-won, Bae Jin-woong, Jang Eui-don
Director: Kim Yong-hoon
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Right after Quentin Tarantino truly put down stakes with the mighty players of Hollywood with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, critics discovered a new way to describe movies that had a violent streak along with ice cold blood running through their veins: Tarantnio-esque. These films were gritty in the sense that they had a rusty sheen to them, making even the most uglied up movie star still look magazine cover ready. Between witty banter and twisty plots with quadruple crosses and time hopping storylines, the movies were too cool for school and aimed to match Tarantino’s ear for dialogue, taste in music, and encyclopedic knowledge of film to help make numerous small references throughout. The trouble was Tarantino was such a singular talent that it was next to impossible to make it look as effortless as he did so any attempt to do so wound up looking like the close by no cigar try it was.
With the success of 2019 Best Picture winner Parasite from Oscar-winning director Bong Joon Ho, I’m already seeing a similar trend emerge from that film’s popularity. Press ads for the South Korean crime thriller Beasts Clawing at Straws compare this new film to last year’s runaway awards hit as well as making passing mention to it resembling something the director of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might have made had it been produced in the U.S. The good news is that for once the quotes aren’t totally off the mark, if even they are slightly more effusive for the overall entertainment value of the picture in general. While there are certain delights to be had in this wicked little tale, a sameness sets in that starts to dampen the early spark set off by director Yong-hoon Kim, who adapted the film from a novel by Keisuke Sone.
It’s a simple story, a tale as old as time almost. A bag of money has parted ways with its owner through a series of unfortunate events and a number of people are now after it, all thinking they have a rightful claim to the contents. The movie clocks how the bag came to be in a locker at a shoddy bathhouse and where it goes after a cash-strapped late-night janitor finds it and takes it home when he is fired by his sniveling boss. Finding out who originally had the money, how they lost it, if they are they ones currently trying to get it back, and who ends up with it becomes a head-spinner of a mystery that isn’t always telegraphed ten minutes in advance but still carries with it some familiarity of other films with this similar robbery storyline. Divided into chapters via title cards making use of an image that is yet another piece of the riddle we’re being told in fragments, keep your eyes on the money not just while it’s in the bag but where it originates as that is key to unraveling the solution later on.
Chock full of characters and a swerving plot that waits for no viewer, Beasts Clawing at Straws demands more than your usual amount of attention and that begins to get exhausting after an hour or so. It would help if there were a few standouts in the cast, but everyone is playing into their stock characters so much that it’s hard to derive much nuance from them, let alone ask them to provide it from Kim’s script. As in most cases, it’s the villains that linger the longest in memory so Jeon Do-yeon’s glam madame lady crime boss has the most fun devouring the scenery and we are more the better it. The air of the film palpably changes when she arrives and coincidentally that’s when the most trouble begins for a number of the players we’ve already met…plus the most bloodletting. Here again is another case where you wish she was given more than a passing brush stroke of a character trait, the film simply doesn’t have the time or space to allow much of that in the story it needs to tell.
I have the sneaking suspicion this is one property some American studio will buy and remake in English and in the right hands it could emerge as a tighter, trickier film with a few more surprises in store for the viewer. There are plenty of juicy roles that Hollywood actors would love to snag, like the femme fatale criminal that causes so much trouble and a freaky henchman that likes to eat raw fish guts in between dispatching his victims. Rehashing some stale double crosses, Beasts Clawing at Straws knows how to stage a good-looking backstabbing (the film is beautifully made and edited) but it lacks a stronger air of unpredictability and memorable performances. The one standout can’t carry the whole film on her shoulders and the other beasts needed more bite to match her performance.