[This review contains major spoilers]
It started with a bag.
The whole violent web of events in this movie started with just one bag, albeit, a bag full of money. It serves as the plot device to connect the individual stories in Beasts Clawing at Straws.
The film started in the future timeline with the money bag falling into the hands of sauna worker Joong-man (Bae Sung-woo). He is a middle-aged man who tries his best to make an honest living despite hardly making ends meet. Joong-man wasn’t immediately tempted to take home the found treasure. There was clear hesitation on his part (and probably fear too). The time between whether or not Joong-man would take the money was then used to show how the bag got left at the sauna house in the first place. And it wasn’t as easy as traveling from point a to point b. The said bag went from one character to another in a seamless yet intricate storytelling.
The film used a multi-linear narrative structure to unravel the money bag’s origin. It wasn’t an easy style to use as it requires its audience’s full attention for it to get appreciated. There wasn’t also an obvious distinction about the timelines so one should really be careful in watching the stories unfold. But every minute you focus and pay attention to the film’s details is worth it. I felt a wave of satisfaction – similar to hitting a eureka moment – once I’ve finally figured out the movie’s intended direction.
To further explain what you’d be getting when you watch Beasts Clawing at Straws, one should know that the story was divided into chapters with each part showing bits and progress in every characters’ individual stories. For instance, in the first chapter which was aptly titled “debt”, we were shown that all characters are under debt, quite literally. Then it was followed by “sucker” which then showed how each character survive with their own ways. And a desperate survival instinct is what each character of this movie has.
Tae-yong (Jung Woo-sung) is an immigration officer who is trying to find ways to pay his debt to a loan shark after his girlfriend/partner disappeared. The loan shark, Doo-man (Jeong Man-sik), terrorizes him to the point he’d bravely fool a cop upfront. Well, he wasn’t really an honest man, to begin with. So such trickery was so easy for him to do. I quite actually enjoy the foolery of this character. Tae-yong’s desperation and borderline-idiotic belief in luck were perfectly portrayed by Jung Woo-sung. He’d drop humorous lines amid his murky situation so naturally I couldn’t help laugh about it even if it’s not the usual sense of humor I enjoy.
But if we’re talking about outstanding performance in this movie, then Jeon Do-yeon owns it. Jeon-hui wasn’t properly introduced until the movie reached its fourth chapter and it was titled after this character. Jeon-hui is a fierce predator similar to a shark. A femme fatale that would destroy everyone who would hinder her way. And I said Jeon Do-yeon stood out among the ensemble cast because she played this two-faced character really well. She has a face of a savior one minute, she would then transform into a vicious killer the next. Her betrayals and deceptions contributed a lot to what made the movie thrilling to watch.
If Tae-yong and Jeon-hui’s stories are the humor and thrill of the movie, the story arc of Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-been) is a tragic origin story of the bag – the movie’s MacGuffin – that started it all off. The meat of her story (pun intended) happened in the movie’s third chapter where her choices kicked off every connecting event in the movie. Mi-ran, who works under Jeon-hui in a club, met Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram) who vowed to her to kill her abusive husband. Jin-tae’s stupid mistake pushed Mi-ran to ask Jeon-hui’s help – her ‘clawing at straw’ moment – only to get tragically betrayed in the end. She only wants an out to her hellish domestic life but she met the wrong people. This victim-turned-killer character was gracefully portrayed by Shin Hyun-been. She’s not new to this kind of role so it wasn’t supposed to be surprising how good she could be but she got me in awe anyway as Mi-ran. I was amazed by her all throughout the run of Mi-ran’s story. Her eyes transform from sorrowful to vengeful in an instant, which is akin to how Jeon Do-yeon switch faces for her own character.
As the rest of the characters fight for the bag of dirty money, their efforts went futile as they weren’t able to enjoy any of it. Their greed even caused them death. The money bag – which is the title of the last chapter in the movie – ended up in the hands of Joong-man’s wife Young-sun (Jin Kyung), who had been enduring all suffering including the nagging of Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung). As the movie jumps between the beginning and end timelines, we’ve seen Joong-man suffer from his privileged boss while Young-sun, on the other hand, got injured after caring for her almost-senile and grumpy mother-in-law. These three characters aren’t as dubious as the others. That’s why one of the most rewarding scene in this movie was when Joong-man finally stood up to his evil boss. Bae Sung-woo didn’t have to deliver his lines with a roaring voice. The conviction in his tone was enough for me to cheer for Joong-man while he was walking out of that sauna house with the money bag on his hand. Actually, Joong-man’s storyline sums up the whole movie, especially this line from Soon-ja: “If you’re alive, things will work out.”
The whole concluding sequence, meanwhile, aptly closes the whole story. We never knew what happened to Joong-man’s pitiful family but it was already satisfying to know the money went to good hands.
Beasts Clawing at Straws has a layered and rich storyline that would hold your attention from start to finish. Its visual is similar to that of classic film noir but done with vivid colors instead. It can be gruesome – at some point gore – but those who like tense-filled narratives plagued with betrayals and a pinch of humor would definitely enjoy this film.
-I find it amusing that Youn Yuh-jung’s name here is the same as her character in Minari
-I would just like to mention that this film was edited by Han Mee-yeon who also did wonders in the editing department of Bong Joon-ho films like Parasite.
-Another quote I got from the movie: “That’s when I realized how scary getting used to something can be.”