South Korean film “Beasts Clawing at Straws” is a nasty and twisty comic thriller about a group of seedy figures trying to win and survive. While there are surely a number of unpleasant and violent moments to make you wince, the movie is often cheerfully morbid as deftly handling its deliberately complicated plot, and we come to go along with that gladly even though we observe its unlikable characters’ desperate struggles from the distance.
At the beginning, the movie, which is set in a port city named Pyeongtaek, sets up its three separate plots one by one. Joong-man (Bae Sung-woo) is the owner of a failing seafood restaurant who also does a part-time job in a local bathhouse while his wife is not working, and the opening scene shows how he comes across something which may change his miserable and unhappy life once for all. While he is going through his night worktime as usual, someone enters the bathhouse and then puts a big bag in one of the lockers in the bathhouse, and Joong-man subsequently discovers that bag while checking the lockers as usual around the end of his worktime.
After coming to realize what is in that bag, Joong-man cannot help but feel tempted by this unexpected opportunity given to him. Because whoever put that bag in the locker does not seem to be looking for it for now, all Joong-man has to do is putting that bag in the storage room along with many other things to be found by their owners someday and then waiting for a right moment when he can take that bag to his home.
In the meantime, we are also introduced to Tae-yeong (Jung Woo-sung), a customs official who has been pressured a lot by a very serious financial trouble. While trying to do a private business along with some woman, he happened to borrow lots of money from a local loan shark, but, alas, that woman turned out to be a professional grifter, and now Tae-yeong is constantly demanded to pay off his debt by that loan shark, who is quite ready to do anything if Tae-yeong cannot give him anything.
Although there is not much time for him, Tae-yeong still believes that he can get out of this grim circumstance because of a big chance he recently came across. There is a person who really needs to get out of the country without leaving any trace, and that person in question already bribed Tae-yeong for passing the customs without any trouble, but Tae-yeong turns out to have his own plan behind his back for getting more than enough money to pay off his debt, and he needs some help from his distant cousin, who is incidentally one of the goons working for that loan shark.
The third plot belongs to Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin), a married woman who has worked in a nightclub since she happened to lose lots of money due to her unwise stock market speculation. Still bitter and resentful about her big mistake which ruined their life, her husband frequently abuses her, and she has been pretty helpless about that, but then there comes a certain idea to her not long after she gets involved with Jin-tae, a young Korean Chinese guy who seems to be willing to do anything for her.
As these three plots independently get thickened step by step, the screenplay by director/writer Kim Yong-hoon, which is based on the novel of the same name by Keisuke Sone, keeps us guessing how these three plots will eventually converge in the end, while throwing several different elements to confound and intrigue us. There is a severely mutilated body found in a local lake, and then we meet a cop who busily snoops around here and there for investigating his latest case, and then there comes a certain crucial character who may be more cunning and dangerous than many of other characters in the film.
I will not go into details for not spoiling your entertainment, but I can tell you instead that you will enjoy the film a lot if you are a connoisseur of those twisty crime movies of the Coen Brothers. While often jolting us with several gut-chilling moments of violence, the movie also shows a wry sense of humor, and its dark mix of humor and violence makes a striking contrast with the growing urgency and desperation surrounding its main characters. No matter how much they try hard for survival, the situation gets messier and messier for them, and, not so surprisingly, they all come to face the inevitable consequences of their actions in one way or another.
The movie is buoyed a lot by the well-rounded ensemble performance from its good cast members, who certainly have lots of fun with playing their broad but colorful characters. While Jeon Do-yeon and Jung Woo-sung are the most notable members in the bunch, they seldom overshadow other substantial performers including Bae Sung-woo, Jung Man-sik, Jin Kyung, Shin Hyun-bin, Jung Ga-ram, Park Ji-hwan, and Bae Jin-woong, and the special mention goes to Youn Yuh-Jung, who seems to be stuck in a thankless role at first but then gets her own moment just like the other main cast members in the film.
On the whole, “Beasts Clawing at Straws” is a solid genre exercise which surprises and entertains us enough, and now I come to muse a bit on what I personally learned from “A Simple Plan” (1998) and “No Country for Old Men” (2007). Yes, we have all been told that we should report to the police when we come across something valuable belonging to somebody else, but can we really beat that temptation if we are under such a circumstance? Well, after watching the movie, you will probably think twice if such a situation happens to you.