Beasts Clawing at Straws utilises genre familiarities to its advantage, creating a witty and original story in a niche generally thought to be extinct.
With a large bundle of cash, a slew of characters, and some shaky morals, what could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out – quite a lot. Beasts Clawing at Straws starts in a similar way to other rolling, twisty-turny, crime movies. An average Joe comes across a whole lot of money. Of course, there’s only one reason for a duffel bag full of cash to be stowed away in a sauna’s locker room: some old-fashioned, back-stabbing, street-level crime. Over the following hour-and-fifty-minutes-or-so, Beasts Clawing at Straws brings comedy, murder, double-crossing, and more to the screen, written with a very sharp pen, and performed stupendously by all.
“That’s all good and proper Kai, but I’ve seen dozens of these cash-in-a-bag crime movies before, why should I watch this one?” Well, if you’ve seen dozens of these movies, I assume you like them, and if you like these kinds of movies, you’re bound to get something out of Beasts Clawing at Straws. Sure, it hits the usual tropes and elements on the head, but there’s a slip of self-awareness in this one that you might not have come across before. The punchlines come with a wink and the plot developments with a theatrical flourish. If you don’t like this sub-genre, but you’ve made that decision based on early Guy Ritchie movies, or the number of flicks still trying to capitalize on the popularity of Reservoir Dogs, I’d recommend you have a look at how non-English speakers take on the task, and Beasts Clawing at Straws is as good a place as any to begin that exploration.
So, if you’re still reading after those initial recommendations, I suppose you’re here for the nitty-gritty. Or at least some level of detail beyond me writing that the movie is good. Firstly, the colours. Every colour from the rainbow and beneath it makes an appearance in this movie. From the inner city locations awash with the neon reds and purples of modernity to the bleaker greys and greens of harborside locales, winding forest lanes, and countryside retreats. It’s not often a cash-in-a-bag crime movie expels such effort at moving its characters from setting to setting, and making doubly sure each new area is definitively distinguishable from the previous.
Secondly, the score. As opposed to the usual decision within this niche to repurpose popular music to juxtapose the low morals of the characters on-screen, or use some jazzy number to try and highlight the impossible odds in a jovial manner, Beasts Clawing at Straws instead strikes into uniqueness via traditionalism – an entirely new, dedicated score. In a move that personally appeals to me very much, the score isn’t all grand orchestrations and dramatic string sections; it’s stripped back and playful, more reminiscent of your favourite comedy-edged murder mysteries. Bringing to mind the tone of the Pink Panther flicks, or more recently, Knives Out.
“OK Kai, we get that Beasts Clawing at Straws is fun, unique, and that we should probably watch it, but is it comedy all the way through? I don’t really like over-the-top movies.” I’ll try my best to ignore that deliriously unfathomable comment there, stranger, but in answer to your question, no, it’s not comedy the whole way through. If you want your tense set-ups where every character in the room is keeping a different secret, and sections where the cold-blooded gang members do a lot of stabbing and menacing looks. If you want moments where you’re wondering if it’s really going to go there or scenes where you think, how can this situation get any worse? You’ve got them. Beasts Clawing at Straws knows how to balance the tone, which to be able to pull off in a debut feature is frankly pretty incredible.
Of course, there must be a few low points throughout the runtime, otherwise this review would say five stars under the title, and, after a first watch, here’s something I personally found to be a little disappointing. Despite its efforts to maintain originality, Beasts Clawing at Straws unfortunately falls at the character hurdle. You’ve likely met the people in this movie before. There’s the innocent guy with family troubles, the escort in an abusive relationship, the crazy crime boss and his mute goon, the guy who owes a lot of money, and the mysterious lady with illegal connections. It’s all there. Due to the presence of these genre archetypes, if you’re familiar with how these narratives usually play out, you might find yourself predicting the actions of these characters, for their individual intentions aren’t overly complex or new.
But in the grand scheme of things, the positives vastly outweigh the negatives when it comes to Beasts Clawing at Straws and having a fun time watching it. I for one am very excited about what writer/director Kim Yong-hoon might have in store next, and I’m happy to relay that this flick will be one of the handful that defines this year of movie watching for me. If you’re in a country where it is now safe to do so, and the opportunity to catch Beasts Clawing at Straws on the big screen presents itself, I’d say returning to cinemas for this one would be hard to regret.
Beasts Clawing at Straws premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam on January 25, 2020. The film will be released in the UK in 2021, on Curzon Home Cinema on 13 August and on Digital Download on 23 August.
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