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)

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Lee Won-tae, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

81745_1000“Two bad guys will catch the worst man” according to irritated gangster Jang Dong-su (Ma Dong-seok) in Lee Won-tae’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Akinjeon). He doesn’t quite know how right he is, even as he forms an unlikely alliance with a maverick cop himself highly irritated because his lazy colleagues won’t listen to his theory that a spate of unsolved murders are the work of a serial killer. More alike than they’d care to admit, the two “bad guys” team up to do what they have to do in order to make the killing stop but at what price?

A vicious killer (Kim Sung-kyu) has developed a habit of rear-ending solo drivers on lonely roads, stabbing them repeatedly and then leaving them for dead. Maverick cop Tae-seok (Kim Mu-yeol) has become convinced that the killings were carried out by the same perpetrator and that they have not yet been identified as a “serial killer” partly because the crimes took place in different districts and there is insufficient co-operation between precincts, and partly because his colleagues think serial killers are something you see in American movies. His superiors just want to close cases, they aren’t particularly concerned with upholding justice or protecting the innocent and so Tae-seok starts thinking outside of the box when he hears that the killer’s latest target was none other than top mob boss Jang Dong-su.

Dong-su got rear-ended after running an errand to have a word with a wayward underling, Hur (Yoo Jae-myung), who has forgotten his place. The killer made a serious mistake going after Dong-su who is a big, handy kind of guy and therefore manages to fend him off, even wounding him in the shoulder despite being badly injured himself. Though the obvious conclusion is that Hur sent someone after him, Dong-su is unconvinced seeing as he had never seen his assailant before and is pretty sure he’s not a member of the gangster underworld. Still, he’s very annoying because a gangster only has power in being respected and right now Dong-su looks a fool. If he wants to get his “professional” life back on track, he needs to get his revenge but to do that he’ll have to cross the floor and work with law enforcement, temporarily teaming up with rogue cop Tae-seok whose heart is in the right place even if he’s not averse to bending the rules.

One of the things which most bothers Tae-seok about amoral killer “K” is that, unlike most serial killers, he kills indiscriminately and purely for pleasure. He has no “type” and generally goes up against those most likely to fight back, unlike your average pattern killer who targets the vulnerable. Like Tae-seok and Dong-su, he is however quite annoyed – this time because someone has “framed” him for a murder he didn’t commit in order to further their own ends. Hugely overconfident and cooly psychopathic, he sits in the dock and asks what makes his crimes different than the state’s if the state is fixing to execute him without proper evidence. Pointedly looking at law enforcement, he affirms that the real villains are those who commit crime with kind faces (say what you like, but at least K looks the part).

When it comes to Tae-seok he might have a point. Conspiring with Dong-su to “kill him with law”, Tae-seok gleefully manipulates the system while giving Dong-su tacit permission to take his revenge as long as “justice” has been properly served. K doesn’t believe in anything, Tae-seok believes in a particular kind of “justice” if not quite in the law, while Dong-su mourns the sense of self-belief that allows you to rule the roost as an all powerful gangster. The three men are a perfect storm, each angry, each resentful, each vowing a particular kind of revenge against the forces which constrain them be they corrupt and lazy superiors, gangsterland disrespect, or the “injustice” of being accused of a crime you did not commit but not being properly credited for the ones you did. Bathed in a garish neon, Lee’s anti-buddy-cop drama embraces its noirish sense of fractured morality with barely suppressed glee as its similarly conflicted heroes pursue their violent destinies, true to their own but dragged to hell all the same.


The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Outlaws (범죄도시, Kang Yoon-sung, 2017)

The outlaws posterBack in 2004, a hero cop made the headlines by cleaning up Chinatown when he took into custody 32 known gang members in Seoul’s Garibong district. Based on the real life case, The Outlaws (범죄도시, BumJoedoshi, AKA Crime City), is the debut feature from Kang Yoon-sung in which Ma Dong-seok adds goodhearted yet compromised policeman to his list of increasingly impressive leading performances. Truth be told the role does little to stretch his current range but fits comfortably into Ma’s well worn persona of noble bruiser as he plays fatherly commander to his fiercely loyal team and avuncular mentor to a brave boy in the district who wants to help free the area from the dangerous gang violence which leaves not just businesses but lives under threat.

Ma Seok-do (Ma Dong-seok) is the only force stopping Garibong from descending into a hellish war zone of gang violence and destruction. A local resident, Ma is well respected in the area and knows the territory well enough to navigate its various challenges. Rather than take on the gangs wholesale he attempts to placate them, brokering an uneasy equilibrium which keeps the violence contained and helps to protect ordinary people from its effects. All of that goes out the window when a new threat arrives in the form of vicious gangster Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-sang) and his two minions whose methods are unsubtle in the extreme, ending with rival gang bosses chopped up and placed inside suitcases over nothing more than a trifling gambling debt.

Jang is a new and terrifying threat because he sees no need to play by the “rules”. A peace cannot be brokered with him and he cannot be reasoned with. Ma knows the time has come for action but even with police resources behind him is ill equipped to become, in effect, Garibong’s latest gang leader. To this end he makes a surprising decision – asking the residents for help. The residents, however, remain terrified. How can he ask them to inform on gangsters to whom they’re still paying protection money? Ma’s promise is a big one – to do what no one thought could be done in neutralising the organised crime threat by conducting a mass arrest of foot soldiers from across the gangland spectrum.

Ma Dong-seok makes fantastic use of his trademark sarcasm as the regular neighbourhood guy who also happens to be a top cop. Kang mixes a fair amount of humour into an otherwise dark and violent tale such as the recurrent presence of two lowly pamphleteers who are eventually pressed into more serious service for Ma, his trickery and manipulation of a suspect (which is also a way to save him from a death sentence on being sent back to China), and Ma’s love of drunken karaoke and lamb skewers with the boys. Ma thinks nothing of arming a gangster with a stab vest, setting up another in a public bath, or playing gangland politics for all they’re worth, but when it really counts he’s as straight as they come, protecting the residents of Garibong like the lone sheriff of some outpost town, equal parts officer of the law and disappointed dad.

The incongruously comical tone harks back to the ‘70s maverick cop golden age in which the lines between law breaker and law enforcer were always blurred but you knew who the good guys were because they had all the best lines. If Kang is aiming for this branded mix of grit and humour he doesn’t quite find it and the comedy sometimes undercuts his more serious intentions but it is undeniably good fun all the same. Ma Dong-seok’s warmhearted maverick is quite rightly the star of the show, but his rivalry with Yoon Kye-chang’s Jang Chen fails to ignite with Chen never quite seeming as menacing as intended. Nevertheless even if Kang’s gangland action comedy has little to add to an already crowded arena, it does at least provide a fitting showcase for Ma’s talents in its sarcastic, world weary policeman who may have one foot on the wrong side of the law but always acts in the name of justice.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)