Fishy metaphors abound in Kim Yong-hoon’s smart port-city neo-noir Beasts Clawing at Straws (Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jimseungdeul), which looks set to hook audiences in its native Korea following a high-profile bow in the main competition at Rotterdam. It should also find welcoming berths overseas at festivals receptive to audience-friendly genre fare, and the adaptation of Sone Keisuke’s Japanese novel has considerable English-language remake appeal at a time when Korean cinema has never enjoyed such global attention.
The presence of Jung Woo-sung in one of the ensemble’s most prominent roles will also help box office prospects in author Sone’s native country, where the actor is particularly popular. He’s largely reactive here as customs official Tae-young, whose girlfriend Yeon-hee has abruptly vanished, leaving him stuck with her large debt to violent loan sharks. Tae-young’s attempts to extricate himself from his parlous situation instead draws him deeper into a complex web of crime — much of it spun around a Louis Vuitton bag heavily laden with cash — taking place in an eclectic range of locales across rainswept Pyongtaek in the country’s northwest.
Engagingly convoluted neo-noir has remake potential.
In the film’s opening moments, the loot is discovered in a locker by downtrodden sauna-hotel employee Joong-man (Bae Seong-woo), who for various family-related reasons happens to be in particularly urgent need of money. Similarly cash-strapped is demure bar hostess Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-been), bankrupted by stock market speculations and suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her volatile husband. One of her customers, Chinese wannabe badass Jin-tae (Jung Man-sik), falls headlong in love with her and offers to remove the despicable spouse from the picture permanently. Complications ensue — predictably, rapidly, bloodily.
Divided somewhat distractingly into five chapters of uneven length announced by stylish title cards, Beasts Clawing at Straws takes a while to establish its tone — unsurprisingly, given director Kim’s inexperience. There are some broad strokes applied in terms of score, acting and camerawork as the various plot strands unfold in a deliberately confusing manner. It’s only at the hour mark that the screenplay is revealed as trickily non-linear; what thus emerges is a No Country for Old Men meets Pulp Fiction, one could charitably say.
By this point, Korean superstar Jeon Do-yeon has belatedly swept to center stage as the errant Yeon-hee, who started a new life as the no-nonsense manager of the establishment where Mi-ran works. Winner of best actress honors at Cannes in 2007 for Lee Chang-dog’s Secret Sunshine, Jeon has a ball here as a calculating, delightfully ruthless and amoral femme fatale of the old school. She dominates the second half of the film, during which the various elements of the plot click together with smooth precision as the bodies start piling up.
Beasts Clawing at Straws demands attention and patience, but happily ends up amply rewarding both.
Production companies: B.A. Entertainment, Megabox JoonAng PLUS M
Cast: Jung Woo-sung, Jeon Do-yeon, Bae Seong-woo, Shin Hyun-been, Youn Yuh-jung, Jung Man-sik, Jin Gye-ong
Director: Kim Yong-hoon (based on the novel by Sone Keisuke)
Producer: Billy Acumen
Executive producer: Kim Jun-sun
Cinematographer: Kim Tae-sung
Production designer: Han Ah-reum
Costume designer: Cho Hee-ran
Editor: Han Mee-yeon
Composer: Kang Ne-ne
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Competition)
Sales: M-Line Distribution, Seoul (firstname.lastname@example.org)