Movie Review: Desperate criminals, cops and debtors — “Beasts Clawing at Straws”

A lover on the lam, a missing “sucker,” body parts in a lake, an abused escort-wife, an illegal immigrant smitten with her, a corrupt bureaucrat, a murderous mobster he’s in dutch to, a clumsy-nosy-pushy cop, a family trapped in debt and dead-end jobs — and a misplaced Louis Vuitton carry-on.

How all those “Beasts Clawing at Straws” tie together is the mystery at the heart of this thoroughly entertaining debut feature from the Korean director Kim Yong-Hoon.

Money and the lack of it drives the film, a bloody and yet ever-so-tidy adaptation of a novel by Japanese writer Keisuke Sone. The film may break into chapters — “Debt,” “Sucker, “Shark,” etc. But there’s pleasure in its disorganized organization.

The plot is non-linear, a mobius strip that loops in on itself. And the characters? They’re a collection of yin-and-yang opposites — pairs.

Two women, one a femme fatale (Jeon Do-Yeon), the other (Shin Hyun Been) a prostitute beaten by her husband each night; two men, one a family man (Bae Song-Woo) trying to keep his daughter in college and his mean, violent, senile mother from hurting his wife, the other a port officer (Jung Woo-Sung ) in the dutch to a mobster, drinking alone to forget his problems because he’s lost his lover.

Mi-ran (Shin) takes her beatings at home. But trip to the brothel is all it takes for the young illegal Chinese immigrant Jin Tae (Jung Ga-Ram) to become smitten. He’ll help her with this brute husband problem.

But he runs over the wrong guy with his car, and that knocks this port city world off its axis. We’ve got our suspicions about this bag left behind at the gym where sad, weary Jung-man (Bae) works, and fret about what the monstrous mobster Mr. Park (Jeong Man-Sik) is capable of, with regards to port officer Tae-young, and everybody else I mean, the man employs a literal monster (Bae Jin-woong) hitman who “enjoys intestines.” And not the ones from pigs, either.

And then the missing lover, the femme fatale, the brothel boss Yeon-Hee (Jeon, in a scorching turn) shows up, leggy and lusty, and murderously mercenary. All bets are off from this moment on.

Kim Yong-Hoon keeps the picture on the move and on its feet as we follow this or that character into and sometimes out of peril, skipping through a timeline with only that damned Vuitton bag to keep them, and us, focused.

The tone veers from righteous outrage to comic romp, with flashes of jaw-dropping violence filling the third act. It’s challenging and fun.

And if you don’t find the twisty story enough of a mind-game, try taking notes and reviewing it. The subtitling is less than complete, characters are barely identified, here and there, if at all. The spelling of the character names varies in the subtitles, the closing credits and the Internet Movie Database. YOU try keeping all that straight.

But you don’t have to. As the old Korean adage says, “Just go with it,” and even if you guess where it’ll end up, the circuitous way “Beasts Clawing at Straws” gets there is never less than pure thriller-watching pleasure.

MPAA Rating: Unrated, bloody violence, prostitution, profanity

Cast: Jeon Do-Yeon, Bae Seong-Woo, Shin Hyun Been, Jung Ga-Ram, Kim Jun-Han, Jeong Man-Sik

Credits: Directed by Kim Yong Hoon, script by Kim Yong-Hoon and Lee Jeong -Hwa, based on a novel by Keisuke Sone. An Artsploitation release.

Running time: 1:48

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