Cheap gangsters, duplicitous dragon ladies, a mute tattooed assassin, get-rich-quick schlubs looking to score and a comical detective: “Beasts Clawing at Straws” could just as well be called “Beasts Toying with Clichés” if it weren’t such an amusing, echt Korean romp. Debuting director Kim Yong-hoon acknowledges a certain “Fargo” influence, but there’s also a hint of “What’s Up, Doc?”, albeit far bloodier, as a Louis Vuitton bag stuffed with cash becomes the catalyst for a cascading chain of events that Kim daringly builds non-chronologically, using chapter divisions. Featuring major stars Jung Woo-sung (“The Good, the Bad, and the Weird”) and Jeon Do-yeon (“Secret Sunshine”), the film is an overstretched yet fun joyride sure to do big business at home following a projected mid-February release; a small international distribution isn’t inconceivable given Korean cinema’s ever-rising profile and the film’s jury award at the recent Rotterdam Film Festival.
At a down-market hotel with an attached bathhouse in the Northwestern harbor city of Pyeongtaek, desk clerk Jung-man (Bae Sung-woo) discovers the money in a locker and moves the bag to a storage room without initially touching the surprising contents. Life’s been rough for him recently: He and his wife work menial jobs after going bankrupt and they’re living with his harridan mother (Yun Yuh-jung) who’s got early-stage Alzheimer’s; in addition, his daughter failed to get a student loan. While essentially an honest man, he’ll find it hard to resist the lure of so much cash.
Customs agent Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) is already late repaying loanshark Mr. Park (Jung Man-sik), and if he doesn’t come up with the goods real soon, he’s likely to lose some limbs courtesy of Park’s silent hitman (Bae Jin-woong). In another part of town, Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-been) is the sole classy prostitute in a “hostess” bar run by ultra-cool madam Yeon-hee (Jeon). Mi-ran’s relatively new to the game, but after getting scammed, she needs to earn money and get away from her abusive husband. When client Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram) falls in love with her and learns she’s being beaten at home, he offers to knock off her husband in a drive-by “accident” so she can collect the insurance money.
Unexpected connections between characters are discovered as timelines catch up and merge, with plenty of double-crosses and a fair number of murders until it comes back to the moment when Jung-man finds the bag and fatefully decides what to do with the money. Kim largely manages to keep the delicate balancing act afloat, thanks to larger-than-life characters whose caricature-like conception helps make complicated plot twists as clear as possible. The standout through it all is the deliciously bitchy performance of Jeon as the chic madam who turns out to have an important connection to Tae-young. Her complete absence of morals together with her ability to take on a variety of personas add a considerable level of fun and perk things up when they threaten to feel overly familiar.
The opening sequence when Kim Tae-sung’s fluid camera follows the Louis Vuitton bag features a 1970s caper tongue-in-cheekiness that’s largely replaced by a standard modern thriller look full of darkened streets and moody interiors. While attractive, the widescreen visuals lack a sense of individuality. Luckily the actors have enough verve to carry it through to the enjoyably open-ended finale.