Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Aug 30, 2020 4:48 pm 
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A pleasing genre debut surrounding a bag of money

The bodies really mount and a fancy bag gets shifted around in this engaging, if occasionally a little opaque multi-segmented tale of people scrambling for money. It starts with a cheap hotel with sauna in Pyeongtaek, a northwest port city in South Korea, where the action transpires (and there's some good seafood). In the prologue, down-on-his luck employee at this joint Jung-man (Bae Sung-woo) finds a big Louis Vuitton satchel (presumably a real one, to honor the contents) that somebody left in a locker, heavy with maybe a million bucks in Korean money. He stuffs it away in a back storage room to retrieve later, as it turns out, after getting fired for not being punctual at work. In what follows the shifted-around sequences show us what happened before this event - and after it.

Jung-man and wife work at lowly jobs due to heir small business going belly-up, and live with his aggressive, difficult mom with dementia (Yun Yuh-jung). As stylish if not particularly helpful story segments unreel ("Debt," "Bait,", "Food Chain," "Shark," "Luck Strike" [sic], "Money bag"), over time we meet hip madam Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon) and her spousally-abused top call girl Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-been), who needs to get rid of her husband and also (Yeon-hee does) owes a lot of money from losing stock market investments loaned to her by her boyfriend, whom we'll also be meeting. Jin-Tae (Jung Ga-Ram), a cute but goofy young Chinese illegal with processed orange hair , volunteers to do the husband disposal, having fallen for Mi-ran, by faking a car accident. Then he can go back to China with her.

With some fanfare there arrives the madam Yeon-hee's boyfriend, who's a customs agent Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung), who gets hounded by loan shark Mr. Park (Jung Man-sik) and Park's cannibalistic enforcer (Bae Jin-woong). There's a nosy, self-indulgent cop, a nasty hotel manager, a high school classmate of Tae-young's coming around to bother people, and other creditable actors.

Most of these projects go badly wrong, and hence the growing body count.

Debuting filmmaker Kim Yong-hoon, as a generous Korean Herald article reported, is a late-bloomer long toiling in a media corporation, is working zestfully from an adaptation of Japanese writer Keisuke Sone's novel. There are influences and Kim acknowledges Fargo. US reviewers have mentioned What's Up Doc? (with more blood) as well as Pulp Fiction meets No Country for Old Men "one could charitably say," says Neil Young in his Hollywood Reporter Rotterdam review.

Well, those are two of my favorite Tarantino and Coen brothers movies, and we shouldn't expect that level of intensity. But we can enjoy the glossy gangster movie style, nice lighting and cinematography (there's a swell fire, and lots of night-time neon panorama, doubtless enhanced by first-time director Kim Yon-hoon's beginner's enthusiasm. Most of all there are watchable actors, headed by Jung Woo-sung (The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) and Jeon Do-yeon, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 2007 for her lead performance in Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine (NYFF 2007). At the end, I wanted more - but nowadays, that's a good thing. We can well hope for other explorations of the wealth of genre possibilities and the Korean flair for gangster violence from Kim Yong-hoon.

The Variety critic said all the genre tics might have made this deserve retitling as "Beasts Clawing at Cliches" "if it weren’t such an amusing, echt Korean romp." But it is, and we had fun.

Beasts Clawing at Straws 지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, 108 mins., debuted at Rotterdam Jan. 2020 and opened theatrically in South Korean in Feb. 2020. It has played in France, with a premiere in Paris Jun. 22, 2020 and theatrical release in Paris Jul. 8, known as Lucky Strike (AlloCiné press rating 3.6: Nouvel Observateurcalled it "un polar amphétaminé"); limited release July 30, Singapore. Screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 NYAFF.; limited release July 30, Singapore.

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