A struggling restaurant owner, caring for his sick mom, finds a bag of cash in a sauna locker, while a customs officer gets into trouble when his girlfriend runs off with money he borrowed from a loan shark.
The shadow of author James M. Cain looms large over Yong-hoon Kim’s “Beasts Clawing at Straws,” a twisty-turny piece of neo-noir that revels in the tale’s dark humor and instances of cruel fate that befall its cast of luckless characters. Much like in Cain’s novels “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity,” they hit upon a variety of seemingly foolproof plans that will save them from their respective dilemmas. Of course, the rug is pulled out from under them, delivering each to circumstances far more dire than those they were hoping to escape. A bag brimming with ill-gotten loot is their instrument of salvation. As it passes from one owner to the next, its journey is one of the most imaginative and clever to hit the screen this year.
If Jong-man (Bae Seong-woo) didn’t have bad luck he’d have no luck at all. A struggling restaurant owner saddled with his dementia-addled mother, his business is on the verge of collapse and his daughter is unable to pay her college tuition. Working a part-time job at a sauna, he discovers an unclaimed Louis Vuitton bag that contains the answer to all his problems. Brimming with cash, he hides it away in the backroom until he can figure out a way to get it out safely. This proves to be the first of many mistakes he and others will make in their mad-mad-mad-mad-world pursuit of this treasure. Poor Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-been) is forced to work as a bar hostess after suffering stock market loses. She starts to see dollar signs when she looks at her heavily insured, abusive husband, who her eager-to-please boyfriend (Jung Man-sik) happily agrees to kill. And then there’s Tae-Young (Jung Woo-sung), a poor sap who borrowed money from a ruthless loan shark to help his girlfriend. She went on the lam, leaving him not only with a broken heart, but massive debt and threats on his life over his inability to repay it.How Yeon-Hee (Jeon Do-yeon), Mi-ran’s boss figures into all this, I’ll leave for you to discover. Suffice it to say, she’s ruthless and not to be trifled with.
Based on the novel by Keisuke Sone, the labyrinthine plot takes a while to build a head of steam. However, it’s all worth it, as you come to realize Kim is setting up an elaborate table of fools and villains that, once they fall into the orbit of that bag full of cash, their fate is sealed. While the story proves initially confusing, the viewers’ patience is rewarded as this clever story provides one satisfying twist after another. And while the film is excessively violent and not every victim deserves what ultimately befalls them, I found myself cackling in delight over just how smart, stylish and crafty the story is.
Once the third act begins, you’ll likely be able to see how the story and its players come together and there’s a sense of delight in seeing how all the pieces fall into place. Even seemingly incidental incidents from early in the film boomerang back to marvelous effect and just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Kim has a surprise or three up his sleeve, all of them in keeping with the movie’s internal logic. For those in need of a Tarantinoesque piece of wry crime cinema, “Beasts Clawing at Straws” more than fits the bill as it gleefully reminds us of the consequences of getting what we wish for.
3 1/2 Stars