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Jeon Do-yeon, Beasts Clawing at Straws
Courtesy of Curzon Home Cinema

Beasts Clawing at Straws: the wild Korean thriller for fans of Parasite

The racy, high-octane movie from first-time filmmaker Kim Yong-Hoon, set in the neon-lit city of Pyeongtaek, follows a hotel sauna janitor and call girl in a scramble for cash

Still looking to fill that Parasite-shaped hole? Well, your prayers may well have been answered. After making a dynamic impact at home last year (and premiering at the Opening Gala of the London East Asia Film Festival 2020), gruesome South Korean thriller Beasts Clawing at Straws has now arrived on Curzon Home Cinemas, and will join digital streaming platforms later this month.

Directed by Kim Yong-hoon as his debut feature film, it’s a wild blend of crime chaos, with an ensemble of apparently unconnected characters going head-to-head for a bag full of cash in the heart of Pyeongtaek. Fans of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers will relish the tense romp of dodgy deals, cunning betrayals, and unexpected casualties. And, of course, there can only be one victor. 

THE NEON-LIT CITY OF PYEONGTAEK IS THE CRIME SCENE

The film’s tightly wound plot concerns a Louis Vuitton duffle bag stuffed full of cash, abandoned by an unknown benefactor in a hotel sauna locker room. This is the central MacGuffin that will become the fixation of the film’s titular “beasts” – but it is the vivid setting of Pyeongtaek that serves as a most conducive backdrop as the rat race promptly spins out of control. The port city, located 65km south of Seoul, is a rain-soaked metropolis marked by virtual driving ranges, conveyor belt sushi restaurants, neon-lit nightclubs, and desolate dockyards.

As Beasts Clawing at Straws depicts it, this thriving sin city is fuelled by corruption – from cruel middle managers and vicious brothel patrons, to double-crossers and noir-ish femme fatales. Throw in some hefty ongoing debts and some bloodthirsty, money-hungry locals, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster in the style of Fargo or No Country For Old Men.

THE CAST INCLUDES A 2021 OSCAR WINNER

While a life-changing sum of money is at the heart of the narrative, it’s the players that colour the film so vividly. Looping in and out of each other’s stories in a manner akin to Pulp Fiction, the vibrant ensemble of characters risk everything while racing each other for the prize.

There’s disreputable customs officer Tae-young – deep in debt with sadistic crime boss Park Doo-man. Park’s cannibalistic henchman Catfish, meanwhile, has an insatiable appetite for raw meat. Mi-ran’s a call girl, coupled up with a young Chinese immigrant who boasts that he’s killed a man. Her boss Yeon-hee, meanwhile, has a secret to hide – with the shark tattoo on her leg hinting at a ruthless streak. All the while, a solitary detective named Myung-goo (played by regular Bong Joon-ho collaborator Je-mun Yun) nips at their heels.

But the film begins with – and, for large sections, is carried forwards by – hotel sauna janitor Joong-man, down on his luck and struggling to provide for his wife and sick, paranoid mother. The latter – who seems to believe the former is trying to kill them all – is portrayed by Youn Yuh-jung, who notably became the first Korean to win Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards this year for her performance in Minari. 

These remarkably similar roles (right down to the characters each bearing the same name: Soon-ja) were consecutive jobs for Youn, and her presence is the cherry on top of a character-driven narrative that radiates with captivating performances.

IT TOPPED THE SOUTH KOREAN BOX OFFICE... BRIEFLY

In late February 2020, Beasts Clawing at Straws hit the top spot at the box office in South Korea after selling 223,000 tickets across 991 screenings. It might have done even better if the circumstances had been kinder.

The release came right at the start of the country’s battle with the pandemic, with the ‘Patient 31’ super-spreader event resulting in the country’s infection rate increasing nearly five-fold the week of release. Roughly 60 per cent of the total infections nationwide were believed to have stemmed from the incident – which took place at a controversial religious establishment in Daegu dubbed a “doomsday sect with (a) messianic leader” by the Washington Post.

Yet despite the unfortunate timing, the film was a critical success at home and abroad, winning the Special Jury Prize at Rotterdam, while editor Meeyeon Han (Parasite, Snowpiercer) was awarded Best Editing at the Blue Dragon Awards the same year. 

IT’S ANOTHER BIG YEAR FOR HALLYU CRIME CINEMA

Crime films, it could be argued, are the meat and bones of the Hallyu cinema ascendency. The genesis of the whole Korean film industry revival, after all, began with a Heat-style terrorists-versus-secret-agents spectacle: 1999’s Shiri was the country’s first big-budget production to be produced after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. A few short years later, hammer-wielding revenge thriller Oldboy sent Hallyuwood truly international, as Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life also caught the attention of Western audiences.

Post-Parasite, South Korea shows no signs of slowing when it comes to high-octane crime cinema

Post-Parasite, South Korea shows no signs of slowing when it comes to high-octane crime cinema. Beyond Beasts Clawing at Straws, Hong Won-Chan’s frenzied cat-and-mouse thriller Deliver Us From Evil reunited the two emphatic leads of crime epic New World in a dark plot about kidnapped children and an organ-harvesting black market. It recently hit cinema screens in London courtesy of the London Korean Film Festival’s ‘Summer Screenings’. 

Both were pipped at the domestic box office (and to the honour of being the country’s official submission for the Academy Awards) by South Korea’s biggest hit of 2020. The Man Standing Next is a dark and tense political thriller based on a 1979 military coup that resulted in the assassination of South Korean President Park Chung-hee by the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. 

In 2021, the action-packed, Somalia-set Escape from Mogadishu (currently South Korea’s highest-grossing film of the year) has just gone international after opening New York Asian Film Festival in August 2021. Twist-laden gangster saga The Devil’s Deal, from director Lee Won-tae (The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil) received its world premiere at FantasiaFest in Canada just this month. And Decision to Leave, the latest mystery from Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), is also anticipated to hit Western screens later this year. 

With so many thrilling works still coming out of South Korea, the onus is now on Hollywood to up the game or be left eating dust.

Beasts Clawing At Straws is available now on Curzon Home Cinemas, and it hits other streaming platforms in the UK on August 23