Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)

If you found a big bag full of money and then waited a while but no one came to claim it, what would you do? Many people would do as Jung-man (Bae Seong-woo) did, but sometimes gifts from the gods are sent to tempt you and are decidedly more trouble than they’re worth. Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jibseungdeul) is an apt way to describe our small group of interconnected protagonists, each desperately trying to get their hands on the money not necessarily for itself but for the power and possibility it represents or simply to free themselves from a debt-laden existence. 

Jung-man finds the Louis Vuitton bag stuffed inside a locker at his part-time job in a bathhouse. It seems that he is feeling particularly powerless because he’s somehow lost the family business and either never told his extremely domineering mother (Youn Yuh-jung) or she’s simply forgotten, often going off on crazed rants about how her daughter-in-law is secretly plotting to kill them all. Meanwhile, across town, immigration officer Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) is desperately trying to find his missing girlfriend, Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon), who has, apparently, run off with all his money leaving him in a difficult position with vicious loan shark Park (Jung Man-sik), and melancholy hostess Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin) is miserably trapped in an abusive marriage and plotting escape with the help of Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram), an undocumented migrant from China she met in the club. 

As expected the streams will eventually cross, it is all connected, though it’ll be a while before we start to figure out how in Kim Yong-hoon’s tightly controlled non-linear narrative, adapted from the novel by Japanese author Keisuke Sone. Other than the money the force which connects them is powerlessness. Some of them, maybe all, are “greedy” but it’s not necessarily riches that they want so much as a way out of their disappointing lives. Jung-man feels particularly oppressed because he’s made to feel as if he’s failed his father by losing the family business, something he’s constantly reminded of by his ultra paranoid, domineering mother who eventually pushes his wife down the stairs provoking a crisis point in the foundation of the family. If working part-time in a bathhouse in his 40s hadn’t left him feeling enough of a failure, he is further emasculated by being unable to pay his daughter’s university tuition after she fails to win a scholarship and informs them she’s planning to take a term or two off to earn the money by herself. 

Tae-young is in much the same position, humiliatingly trapped by having foolishly co-signed his girlfriend’s loan only for her to disappear off the face of the Earth, leaving him wondering if he’s just a complete idiot or something untoward has happened to her. He thinks he can regain control of the situation by slipping further into the net of criminality, helping an old uni friend who’s committed large-scale fraud escape to China in exchange for a cut of the loot (and secretly plotting to nab the lot with the help of his shady friend Carp (Park Ji-hwan) who works at the club). 

A crisis of masculinity is also behind Mi-ran’s life of misery as her husband takes out his resentment towards his reduced circumstances on his wife, beating her mercilessly while forcing her to work at a hostess bar to pay off their debts from unwise stock market investments. For her, the money is both revenge and a pathway to a better life. She wants to be free of her husband, and profit in the process. Unable to do it alone, she manipulates male power in the lovestruck Jin-tae all too eager to play white knight to a damaged woman. But Jin-tae is male failure too. When all’s said and done he’s still an innocent boy, not quite prepared for the ugliness of causing a man’s death even if he is a wife beating tyrant the world may be better off without. As an undocumented migrant, he’s pretty marginalised too. Taking advice on how to solve the Jin-tae problem, a more experienced player reminds Mi-ran that no one’s coming looking for an illegal alien and it’s not as if she actually likes him so he is infinitely expendable. 

In an odd way, getting the money is about not being an expendable person anymore. They want the money because they think it will give them back a degree of control over their lives, a kind freedom to move forward with a sense of possibility they do not currently have because of all their debts both financial and emotional. Yet they find themselves farcically scrabbling in chaos, beasts clawing at straws, as they try to outsmart each other and the universe to get their hands on the bag. The universe looks on and laughs, rejoicing in its darkly humorous punchline as the bag finds itself another owner, tempted by its dubious charms with only the promise of more chaos to ensue.


Beasts Clawing at Straws streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app Aug. 29 to Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film festival. Now available in the UK on digital download courtesy of Blue Finch Films!

International trailer (English subtitles)

Office (오피스, Hong Won-chan, 2015)

office posterThe pressure cooker society threatens to explode in Hong Won-chan’s Office (오피스). The writer of recent genre hits The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, Hong has long experience of examining those living on the edge but in his directorial debut he takes things one step further in depicting an entire society running to keep up with itself, furiously chasing its own tail with barely suppressed rage. Not so much survival of the fittest as survival of the least scrupulous, the world of Office is the one in which the mad become the most sane, escaping the constraints of corporate oppression through social revenge but taking the innocent along with them.

Salaryman Byun-guk (Bae Seong-woo) has the soulless eyes of one whose dreams have already died. Dejectedly he sits alone at a coffee shop before cramming himself into the commuter train home where he sits, silently, among his busy family. They wonder why he hasn’t changed out of his suit, shed his corporate persona for his familial one, but when Byung-guk gets up he returns brandishing a hammer which he then, as if in a trance, uses to bludgeon to death his loving wife, disabled son, and senile mother.

Byun-guk flees the scene of crime and is loose somewhere in the city. The police search his office for clues but his colleagues have already come up with their unified version of events, keeping the company out of it by claiming that they all loved Byun-guk and are shocked that he could have done something so horrifying. Meanwhile, intern Mi-rae (Go Ah-sung), who regarded Byun-guk as her only friend in the office, is upset but perhaps not quite so shocked. Excluded from the interoffice cliquery, no one has thought to brief Mi-rae on the party line leaving her a prime target for police inspector Choi (Park Sung-woong).

Byun-guk and Mi-rae are two of a piece – members of the upright and hardworking lower classes who have done everything right but somehow have never been accepted by their peers. Mi-rae, an ordinary girl from Gwangju who worked to lose her accent in her teens dreaming of the high life in Seoul, is shy and mousy but works hard – harder than anyone, to prove herself worthy of Seoul’s unrealistic demands. Her colleagues, privileged, confident, and also harried, do not forgive her for this. They find her earnestness “creepy”, her desire to succeed “suspicious”. Cruelly taken down a peg or two by a colleague taking out her own frustrations on the office nobody, another tries to comfort her with some advice – don’t try so hard, you make us all look bad and we wonder what your need is hiding. Mi-rae isn’t really hiding anything save her slowly fragmenting mental state and the overwhelming need to be accepted to a club that, in truth, is not open to people like her who value their integrity and still believe deep down that working hard and being honest are the only paths to true success.

Korean society, it seems, has become a giant chain of screaming. Byun-guk has been repeatedly passed over for promotion despite being the most reliable employee in the office but his ineffectual boss is overly wedded to the shouting school of business management. Faced with results he doesn’t like, Byun-guk’s boss picks someone to shout at to make them better but offers no further guidance. Railing at the police for not doing their job as if screaming will some how provoke major results even outside of the office, the boss can’t know that police also have their own chain of screaming and Choi has his own boss already taking care of that side of things, demanding results rather than truth or justice.

The meek are taking their inheritance ahead of schedule, but their revenge is born both of societal corruption and rejection. People like Byun-guk and Mi-rae, who are quiet, honest, kind but perhaps not good with people, become the bugs in a system which simultaneously holds them up as essential cogs. Those who cannot just pretend, grease the wheels with superficial social niceties, and accepted their place in the chain of screaming in order to climb further up it are condemned to wander idly around its lower levels going quietly mad until, perhaps, the system crushes them or else collapses.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The King (더 킹, Han Jae-rim, 2017)

the king posterAbsolute power corrupts absolutely, but such power is often a matter more of faith than actuality. Coming at an interesting point in time, Han Jae-rim’s The King (더 킹) charts twenty years of Korean history, stopping just short of its present in which a president was deposed by peaceful, democratic means following accusations of corruption. The legal system, as depicted in Korean cinema, is rarely fair or just but The King seems to hint at a broader root cause which transcends personal greed or ambition in an essential brotherhood of dishonour between men, bound by shared treacheries but forever divided by looming betrayal.

Tae-soo (Jo In-sung) is the classic poor boy made good. His mother abandoned the family when he was only six because she couldn’t cope with his father’s rampant criminality. Do bad things and you’ll go to hell, she told her son but perhaps Tae-soo already feels himself to be there and so doesn’t worry so much about those “bad things” that are a normal part of his life. The top fighter at his school, Tae-soo finds his calling when he sees his tough as nails father kneeling on the ground, pleading furiously in front of a skinny bespectacled man wearing a fancy suit. The man is a prosecutor and walks with the swagger of someone whose every action is government backed, his authority is absolute.

Tae-soo knuckles down, starts studying and gets into Seoul University. An accidental brush with the pro-democracy protest movement lands him in the army but thanks to lying about his hometown on his registration form he gets an easy posting meaning he has even more time to study for the bar. Everything seems to fall into place – he qualifies, gets his dream job, even marries a beautiful, intelligent, feisty woman who also happens to come from a wealthy elite family. The poor boy from Mokpo has made it, but prosecuting isn’t all he thought it would be. Tae-soo is a civil servant which means, like it does the world over, that he’s overworked and underpaid. When he rubs up against a dodgy case he’s made an offer he can’t refuse – drop it, and get a promotion to the big leagues where celebrity prosecutors enjoy lavish lifestyles filled with parties, drinks, and pretty girls. He knows it’s not right, but this is what he’s always wanted and Tae-soo is soon seduced.

Tae-soo’s seduction causes him a few pangs of conscience, but he was, as he was assumed to be, easy pickings. The case in question is a sickening if ordinary one – a teacher has molested a pupil but as the teacher is the son of an influential man and the single mother of the girl in question has learning difficulties, the case has been made to go away. Tae-soo is outraged, hauls the man back in, re-opens the case and obtains additional evidence and witness testimonies which confirm the girl’s story and will have the teacher sent to jail. His seduction is easy – they simply offer to make him one of them, and Tae-soo agrees, sacrificing not only this little girl but potentially many others for his own greed and satisfaction.

Tae-soo is redeemed, in a sense, thanks to his association with a childhood friend who helps him out by taking care of the teacher through “unofficial” means. Choi Du-il (Ryu Jun-yeol) is Tae-soo’s flip side, another poor boy done good but this time on the other side of the law. An ambitious gangster, Du-il is also loyal, just, and honourable – at least within a gangster code. The “errand boy” for this group of thuggish lawyers who behave like gangsters while the gangsters act like politicians with literal rather than metaphorical attack dogs, Du-il senses he’s walking a dangerous path to nowhere at all and has only his friendship with Tae-soo to believe in.

The genuine bond between the two men is one of the few redeeming features of Tae-soo’s increasingly compromised existence in which he sells his soul for the false approval of the man he regards as a “King” in the figure of all powerful, amoral chief prosecutor Han (Jung Woo-Sung). Tae-soo’s story is a conventional one of a basically good yet weak man struggling with a choice he’s made against his better judgement yet it’s not until it’s cost him everything he holds dear that he starts to reconsider.

Han Jae-rim weaves in archive footage and musical cues to evoke the changing eras which will be more obvious to Korean audiences – a case in point being the dramatic positioning of the suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun in 2009. Roh had been a progressive president, often unpopular during his time in office thanks to his inability to pass his policies, and was later tarnished with a corruption scandal but found his reputation posthumously reappraised following his death which was seen both as a declaration of innocence and as a symbol of his deep love for his country and its people. Tae-soo’s change of heart seems to accelerate after Roh’s suicide which drew vast crowds of mourning (and knowing smirks from sleazy prosecutors Han and his sidekick Yang) as his own run in with death prompts a re-evaluation of his place in the grand scheme of things.

The King ends on a rather trite message – that every man is his own king and in the end the choices are all yours (though it seems to hope the choices made will be more altruistic than those of Han, Yang, and the earlier Tae-soo). The power wielded by men like Han is fragile – they need lackies, and if they can’t get them the system crumbles, but they’re also hollow, frightened opportunists who are so desperate they’re even bringing in shady seeming shamans to avoid having to make difficult policy decisions. Tae-soo turns their own tricks back on them with masterstrokes of irony, vowing revenge and perhaps getting it, along with self respect and a re-orientated moral compass but then again, power abhors a vacuum.


Screened as part of a season of teaser screenings for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)