I may be a horror writer by trade, but I’ll be the first person to admit there’s something really satisfying about a good crime movie. Whether it’s a lighthearted heist or a deeper dive into why people do the horrible things they do, it’s always entertaining to see good people do bad, bad people do worse, and consequences come around to give everyone what they deserve. “Hyperlink” crime stories that follow several different connected plotlines are some of the hardest to pull off, but some of the most compelling when they’re done right—and thankfully, South Korean crime thriller Beasts Clawing at Straws (showing at 2020’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, showcasing its willingness to move beyond horror for this weird, weird year) manages to intertwine its many intersecting stories into something gritty yet colorful, dark yet energetic, and above all, fun to watch play out.
Beasts Clawing at Straws (or 지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들) is written and directed by first-time filmmaker Kim Yong-hoon and based on the Japanese book of the same title by Keisuke Sono. It follows three separate characters, all down on their luck and all taking questionable gambles to turn things around. Joong-man (Bae Song-woo), stuck in a thankless job and forced to take care of his ailing mother, finds a bag full of cash at the sauna he works at. Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung), a customs officer in debt to a criminal, plots to run a scam on a hapless mark. And escort Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-been) tries to get one of her clients to kill her abusive husband in exchange for a cut of the resulting life insurance payout. As Joong-man, Tae-young, and Mi-ran all learn the hard way, things can go south in an instant when dealing with criminal activity.
Hyperlink stories run an obvious risk of being confusing, and while I was initially a little confused as to which character was which, it wasn’t hard to figure everyone out and be drawn into this movie’s vibrant-yet-dark criminal underbelly. It wears its Pulp Fiction and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels influences on its sleeve, playing with out-of-order timelines and jumping from plot to plot almost at random before tying everything together. There’s a bit of Coen brothers DNA within Beasts Clawing at Straws as well, judging by its occasionally dark sense of humor and its willingness to place goofy scenes and characters next to serious moments of drama.
However, Beasts and director Kim claw out space all their own (har har) by keeping a tight focus on the main character of each of the film’s story arcs. He gives us a sympathetic lens to view Joong-man, Tae-young, and Mi-ran’s lives through, as well as their hope for a way out. As they plot, double-cross, and backstab their way towards wealth, you can’t help but root for their success. It hits even harder when they run into devastating failures, even when they get the punishment they clearly deserve for their actions.
I won’t spoil the way the three main subplots link together, as it’s much better to watch them play out in real-time, but the most compelling character in the entire film involves herself in all three. Yeon-hee, played by South Korean screen legend Jeon Do-yeon, is a mysterious but important presence in each character’s storyline. Jeon commands attention in the role, projecting kindness, confidence, vulnerability, and malice in all the right moments. And yet, beneath it all, she gives Yeon-hee an underlying desire to come out ahead of everyone else. As the film picks up steam and barrels toward its conclusion, there’s an odd delight in watching the pieces of Yeon-hee’s plans fall into place, even when it spells doom and despair for the protagonists. She makes ruthlessness more and more fun to watch with every new twist.
So far, Beasts Clawing at Straws may sound like a rather dark affair, and while there’s dramatic moments and devastating losses aplenty, there are several lighthearted surprises as well. I found myself laughing out loud every time Tae-young spoke to his excitable friend Carp (Park Ji-hwan) and watching with a suspicious whenever eccentric police detective Myung-goo (Yoon Je-moon) just so happened to show up at the worst possible time for Tae-young. Characters tell convincing lies, but the main cast lets the truth slip to the audience through some wonderful face acting. Even in its darker moments, the film is never boring or cloying thanks to the likable main cast and the ever-present curiosity over how everything connects.
Beasts is visually lush as well—the colors of the noir-tinged city where the story takes place pop out at all the right times. There’s one bar set in particular with a beautifully designed neon display that serves as clever scenic lighting, and it punctuates the screen with some welcome visual levity between several darker story beats. Bright lights permeate the rainy nights where all the criminal activity takes place, illuminating every character in brilliant hues as they desperately try to carry out their desires.
Kim Yong-hoon has done something fantastic with Beasts Clawing at Straws, reinvigorating the hyperlink crime thriller for a new audience while putting his own character-centric spin on it. Between the talented cast, the gorgeous visuals, and the twist-filled plot, he demonstrates a confidence that you don’t often see in a feature directorial debut. Beasts will make you laugh, cringe, gasp, and bite your nails with its tension, and it’ll leave you wanting to see it again immediately after the final shot fades out.