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.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Jo Pil-ho: The Dawning Rage (악질경찰, Lee Jeong-beom, 2019)

Jo Pil-ho- The Dawning Rage posterThe Man From Nowhere’s Lee Jeong-beom returns five years after No Tears for the Dead with another retro crime thriller, though this time one with additional bite as he digs into a nation quite clearly failing its young. Another of the recent films set in the post-Sewol world, Jo Pil-ho: The Dawning Rage (악질경찰, Akjilkyungchal) is a noirish voyage through an intensely corrupt society in which Chaebols act with impunity while goodhearted schoolgirls are branded delinquents and left to fend for themselves by the “adults” who seem to have abandoned all sense of social responsibility.

Our hero and the titular “bad cop” of the Korean title, is Jo Pil-ho (Lee Sun-kyun) – a corrupt police officer who abuses his position to force criminals to commit crime on his behalf. Recently, he’s teamed up with a teenage safecracker, Gi-chul (Jung Ga-ram), and is also involved in an ill-advised business relationship with a petty gangster. IA are all over him, but they don’t have anything yet. Everything is about to change, however, when an angry Pil-ho decides it would be a good idea to rob the police warehouse. The gangster’s minion makes a mistake and the place blows up with Gi-chul trapped inside. Suddenly it’s not looking so rosy for Pil-ho who is now implicated in a series of crimes only to discover that there is far more going on than he could have anticipated. The warehouse fire appears to be connected to an ongoing corruption case involving one of Korea’s biggest conglomerates and Pil-ho may have just destroyed key evidence without realising in an attempt to save his own skin.

Despite himself, Pil-ho is not such a bad guy. He’s corrupt and greedy, but he has a moral compass and probably sees himself as kicking back against the system rather than abusing it seeing as he only seems to take money from sources he feels could stand to lose. This is perhaps why he finds himself increasingly shaken by his investigations, eventually forced to pick a side – surrender to Chaebol influence as a willing underling or expose the corruption possibly at the cost of his own life.

In true noir fashion his own past comes back to haunt him as he re-encounters the father of a young woman (Im Hyeong-gook), Song Ji-won (Park So-eun), who died in the ferry tragedy and had wanted to become a policewoman when she grew up. Pil-ho was the officer charged with the empty gesture of presenting him with a police uniform with his daughter’s name on it. In an unlikely coincidence, the girl Pil-ho needs to find, Mina (Jeon So-nee), was Ji-won’s best friend. Alone and without family, Mina has been living by her wits on the streets but as Mr. Song points out she’s not a bad kid at heart and goes to great lengths to protect those close to her.

Despite their original mutual distrust, a kind of camaraderie eventually builds up between the cynical cop and the jaded teen who views the so-called “adults” around her with nothing more than contempt. Her admiration for Pil-ho begins when he beats up a sleazy backstreet doctor who tries to swap treatment for sexual favours and then continues as Pil-ho, against the odds, begins to look out for her in ways no one else ever has. Mina, like many kids, is simply trying to survive in a world which is often actively hostile to her existence, but unlike Pil-ho she has avoided becoming cynical and remains committed to protecting those weaker than herself even if others may write her off as a lost cause delinquent.

Set in Ansan which, as an ironic sign tells us before falling to the ground, is the “city of happiness”, Dawning Rage locates itself in a haunted land in which the lingering effects of the ferry tragedy are impossible to ignore. Pil-ho begins catching sight of teenagers everywhere but their presence only seems to highlight absence while providing a kind of chorus watching and observing the adults around them in order to learn how to live. The corrupt Chaebol cites his provision of scholarships as evidence of his commitment to building a fairer society, all while knowing that by doing so he is really buying influence and loyalty. He spins a yarn about his humble origins and makes a show of inspiring the next generation, but thinks nothing of silencing those who stand in the way of his selfish aims.

The corruption rains down from above – the Chaebols make their money and they cut corners, leaving ordinary people squeezed. Fear and deference are the primary contributors to the societal decline which placed innocent young people directly, if unwittingly, in harm’s way. This is Pil-ho’s “dawning rage” as he awakens himself to the depths of injustice within his own society with which he had blindly gone along thinking only of himself. With a distinctly 1970s aesthetic, Dawning Rage is a dark conspiracy thriller in which the system is so hopelessly corrupt as to be beyond saving. Pil-ho is a “bad cop” who turns out to be acting for the public good after all but finds himself pushed towards the dark side by the intransigence of his society and forced into an act of violent revenge both personal and social.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale (기묘한 가족, Lee Min-jae, 2019)

The odd family poster 2It takes a special sort of mind to see a zombie and think “business opportunity”, but that’s exactly the kind of out of the box thinking you’ll find with the the Parks – a very strange family living way out in the countryside. Korean cinema is having a bit of a zombie moment, but they’ve rarely been as amusing as this. The debut feature from Lee Min-jae, The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale (기묘한 가족, Gimyohan Gajok) is a surreal satire of changing family values, the stereotypical strangeness of farm country, and the growing suspicion of underhanded practices in the pharmaceuticals trade.

As an opening voiceover informs us, there have long been rumours of diabetes drug manufacturer Human Bio kidnapping innocent members of the public to test their NoInsulin wonder drug. One day, a young man (Jung Ga-ram) manages to crawl out of a hole in the ground and shuffles zombie-like into the nearest village where he encounters the patriarch of the Park family (Park In-hwan), eventually biting him on the head. The Parks once owned the local petrol station, but with things as they are the business is all dried up and so now they mainly make their living by engineering road traffic “accidents” they can later charge exorbitant fees to fix seeing as they are literally the only place in town. When Mr. Park realises that after getting bitten on the head he’s regained his youthful virility, the family become less afraid of the fairly docile lad and decide to take him in partly with the idea of pimping him out to the other sad old men in town who long for nothing more than to regain their glory days.

Only middle son and recently returned failed salaryman Min-gul (Kim Nam-gil) wonders if there’s something not quite right about the new member of their family, showing the others a brief clip from Train to Busan to get his point across, but even he is temporarily won over by the money making opportunity. Tellingly, no one really stops to wonder if it’s OK to lock a young man up in the shed and make him do your bidding for no remuneration, but then where really is the harm if biting people on the arm makes them feel better about themselves? The harm is he’s a zombie which will eventually become quite a big problem.

Meanwhile, the strange Park family continues to fray at the seams. Youngest daughter Hae-gul (Lee Soo-kyung), an ethereal girl in dungarees with a fondness for pet rabbits she can’t seem to keep alive much longer than a month, takes to the zombie instantly. Naming him “Jong-bi” in a pun on his being a zombie and in keeping with the naming system for her rabbits, she installs him on a mattress right next to the hutch and proceeds to feed him cabbages for which he develops an intense fondness (along with ketchup which is Hae-gul’s personal favourite). Meanwhile oldest son Joon-gul (Jung Jae-young) does his best to keep out of the way while his heavily pregnant wife Nam-joo (Uhm Ji-won) keeps an iron grip on the family finances and the house in general. When everyone starts to wonder if dad is going to turn zombie, filial piety goes out the window but all Mr. Park wants is to jet off to Hawaii and leave the family to deal with the mess on their own.

With the patriarch out of the picture and a new little brother to play with (plus quite a lot of money to buy a new start), the Parks begin to repair themselves and make the “family” anew but the cracks are still there as Min-gul turns out to be more like his dad than he seemed in always looking for the best angle and opportunity to make some money no matter the risks or ethical concerns. Nevertheless, the zombie apocalypse does its best to remind them what’s really important as they find themselves having to work together to come up with a plan for survival. Riffing strongly off wholesome ‘50s Americana and kitschy pop-culture cues, The Odd Family is a charmingly surreal ode to family values in which one family’s money grubbing entrepreneurship almost leads to the end of the world only to paradoxically become its salvation as they prove that there’s nothing so potent as togetherness in combatting existential threat.


The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Poet and the Boy (시인의 사랑, Kim Yang-hee, 2017)

Poet and the Boy posterA poet cries for the sorrow of the world, according to the hero of Kim Yang-hee’s melancholy drama, The Poet and the Boy (시인의 사랑, Sienui Sarang). Unfortunately for him, he lives in his own poet’s world, lonely and disconnected but never knowing the true depth of sadness which would give his verse meaning. Until, that is, he falls in love. Beauty turns out to be a doubled edged sword for a mild mannered yet emotionally brave artist struggling to comprehend his place in the world but discovering that some of it, at least, has already been decided for him.

Hyon Taek-gi (Yang Ik-june) is a 30-something aspiring poet married to a feisty shopkeeper. The couple have been married several years and though they are happy enough together, theirs is a marriage born more of convenience than passion. Having married “late” each has settled in to making the best of things, sure that a greater love will one day blossom between them. Mrs. Hyon (Jeon Hye-jin), feeling an absence in the family home, has been longing for a baby but Taek-gi has never been especially interested in that side of things and isn’t really keen on the idea of becoming a father.

Meanwhile, a brand new donut shop has just opened up in town which is good news for Taek-gi because donuts are one of his favourite things. Unsure whether it’s just his status as a purveyor of sweet goods, Taek-gi develops a fascination with the beautiful boy at the bakery (Jung Ga-ram) which is further inflamed when he accidentally catches sight of him in amorous moment with a female customer. To his mild surprise, Taek-gi finds himself captivated with the male physical form, experiencing feelings and desires he had not even known existed.

As his wife later puts it, a poet’s world is different. Taek-gi stops to appreciate the flowers, watches the children play, and makes a round about detour to a fast food restaurant to observe human life but he doesn’t quite live in the world he inhabits or allow himself to truly experience its beauty. As we first meet him, Taek-gi is writing a poem to open the map of his heart but quickly finds himself lost and wandering, unable to settle on a clear direction and ending up at a disappointingly familiar destination. The poem is interesting but imperfect, somehow hollow and inauthentic.

Taek-gi’s creative block is also an emotional one. What begins with a single moment of captivating beauty expands into something deeper and warmer as the poet gets to know the boy on a more intimate level. Seyun is a troubled young man from an impoverished family caring for his bedridden father while resenting his coldhearted mother. What he sees in Taek-gi is something between friend and father, both wary of and delighting in unsolicited kindness from a virtual stranger. Taek-gi’s wife teases him about his attraction to Seyun, probing him about the nature of their own strange relationship. She wonders if it’s really “love” without intense physical desire – something he has made repeatedly clear that he does not feel for her. Taek-gi insists that it is, citing another romanticised love which remained chaste as further evidence only for his wife to fire back that perhaps all he really wanted was the sadness of unfulfilled longing to complete his poetic world view.

Taek-gi later takes his words back, insisting that what he feels for his wife is not “love” and that their relationship was always doomed to fail. Yet it’s not carnal desire which brings him to this realisation so much a greater motion towards connection. Taek-gi who was always ill-equipped for life and never able to take care of himself, begins to look after the younger man both physically and emotionally asking for nothing in return other than his continued company. Despite his otherworldliness and alienation, there is something uniquely brave in Taek-gi’s willingness to tug on the thread of an unfamiliar feeling, uncertain what it is or might be but determined to find out. Disregarding the conservative values of his society which have led him to embrace conventionality in marrying “late”, supposedly “grateful” that someone allowed him the opportunity to marry at all, Taek-gi moves forward if cautiously, aware that his desires may not be accepted and may present a danger to those around him.

Then again, Taek-gi is a middle-aged man with a series of choices already behind him, many of which entail consequences and responsibilities it would be selfish and irresponsible to break even in the pursuit of individual happiness and fulfilment. Perhaps all he really wants is the grand failed romance that will open the map of his heart through breaking its spine, craving “sadness” to feed his art over “love” to feed his soul. True enough, sorrow does wonders for Taek-gi’s art even if he feels himself trapped by his previous choices and the restrictive social codes of his community but there is also something inescapably poetic in his magnanimity as he prepares to set the thing he loves free in a way he never was and believes he never can be.


The Poet and the Boy was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Believer (독전, Lee Hae-young, 2018)

Believer posterJohnnie To’s darkly comical tale of a weaselly meth cook with an extremely strong survival instinct and the austere policeman who can’t resist taking his bait might seem perfectly primed for a Korean remake in its innate pessimism and awkward bromance. Lee Hae-young’s Believer (독전, Dokjeon), however, merely borrows the bones of To’s Drug War while doubling down on its central conceit as reckless obsession leads to the undoing of both our heroes, each forced to confront the futility of their respective, mutually dependent quests.

Obsessed with tracking down a mysterious drug lord known only as “Mr. Lee”, narcotics cop Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) asks a favour from an old informant only to see her murdered, leaving him only a vague clue by tracing an infinity symbol on a crumpled receipt moments before passing away. Warned off the Mr. Lee case, Won-ho finally gets a lead when an explosion at a drug lab brings scorned righthand woman Oh (Kim Sung-ryung) into his office promising to spill the beans in return for protection and immunity. Sadly, Won-ho couldn’t protect her either, but there was another unexpected survivor in the form of low level middleman Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol).

Traumatised by the death of his mother in the same explosion, Rak initially says nothing under interrogation but suddenly wakes up on learning that the lab’s dog also survived and has been rescued by the police. Unlike the “hero” of To’s film, Rak is small fry (if well connected) and is not looking at anything more than significant prison time. Rak may not be fighting for his life but he has a number of reasons for switching sides, especially once Won-ho fills him in on Mr. Lee’s backstory and long history of abrupt purges.

Despite working for the organisation, neither Oh nor Rak had ever met “Mr. Lee”. No one knows anything about them – gender, nationality, name, or location. In fact, there may not even be a Mr. Lee. Perhaps “Mr. Lee” is merely the “god” of drug dealers – an abstract idea almost given flesh but existing in a spiritual sense alone. Nevertheless, the idea of a Mr. Lee has completely captured the heart of compassionate police detective Won-ho whose all encompassing need to find him has already severely destabilised his life. After failing to protect his informant, Won-ho’s complaint against Mr. Lee is now a personal as well as professional one. Not so much out of vengeance (though there is that too), but a need to make the deaths count and his mounting losses meaningful.

Yet as another Mr. Lee contender later puts it, salvation may not be a matter of faith and if your faith has been misplaced, death may be a healing. In believing so deeply in the idea of “Mr. Lee”, Won-ho has given him form and created an idol to be worshipped through devotion. “Brian” (Cha Seung-won), a higher ranking gangster and former preacher chased out of the US for getting his congregation hooked on cocaine, has his own particular brand of faith based problems but subscribes to much the same philosophy. He may really be Mr. Lee (as may anyone), but if he isn’t he’s determined to convince himself he is in order to see himself as something more than the failed son of a chaebol dad who couldn’t hack it in the family business or in the pulpit. Brian would be happy to die as Mr. Lee rather than going on living as “himself”. Won-ho, unable to understand why kids do drugs asks his informant who explains it’s mostly because life is rubbish. Later someone says something similar to Brian, that he’d rather delude himself with the belief that he’s “someone” rather than face the emptiness.

Despite himself, and as Rak is eager to remind him, Won-ho is dependent on his informant for the pursuit of his case. Won-ho is reluctant to trust him even though Rak seems to be actively working to protect him in this extremely dangerous and largely unfamiliar world. Rak, by contrast, is aware he hasn’t won Won-ho’s faith, but assures him that’s OK because Rak trusts him. Rak does indeed seem to have the upper hand along with mysterious motivations and a fishy backstory, but Won-ho’s desperation to get close to Mr. Lee leaves him wide-open, unwilling to trust his guide but too invested to consider cutting him loose. “Belief” becomes its own drug, a transformative ritual act which gradually erodes all other needs and leaves only emptiness in their place. Won-ho can’t even remember why he started chasing Mr. Lee, but all that remains of him is the chase – a true believer suddenly bereft of a cause. Lee Hae-young takes To’s nihilistic cynicism and subverts it with a focus on the personal as both men fight self created images of their individual demons but find themselves unable to escape from their mutually assured identities.


Believer was screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.