Like many 2020 things that seem like they took place an eon ago, Parasite became the first “foreign-language” film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. In a normal year, I would probably be more than irritated by films such as Kim Yong-hoon’s Beasts Clawing at Straws being marketed in accordance with Bong Joon-ho’s zeitgeist stealing domestic thriller; because there isn’t much really in the way of a connection between these two films, other than the blatantly obvious. Yes, these two films are both South Korean. No, these two films have very little in common. But there is something soothing about opening up my email to see a marketing pitch with Parasite in the opening sentence in this hellish year. Bad marketing returns, nature is healing, we are the virus.
Do you remember the scene in Parasite where the characters stumbled upon a big bag of money? Me neither, but it’s present in Beasts Clawing at Straws, as low-level men’s club employee Joong-man (Bae Seong-woo) mysteriously finds such a bag within the confines of one of the club lockers. Joong-man could really use the money. So too could bar hostess Mi-ran (Shin Hyuk-been), whose abusive husband has a large life insurance policy upon him, which means he really needs to die full The Chicks “Goodbye Earl” style.
It turns out the money is Tae-young’s (Korean superstar Jung Woo-sung), or rather, it’s money that he winds up in possession of and could really use to pay back a heavy debt to some particularly unscrupulous loan sharks, who have the annoying habit of threatening to eat his intestines. Bong is ultimately the wrong reference here. Instead, the better reference is the zany macabre of Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. What both Park and Kim manage to portray here is just how weird the criminal underworld could be. There’s an almost zany tone to this, one that is exacerbated by the film’s occasionally slapstick-like score.
Kim competently captures the tone of zany, but he really nails the feeling of urban malaise that makes so many East Asian crime thrillers work. Forget Korea for a second, the best reference is the underworld cinema of Diao Yi’nan. It’s a comparison that feels particularly apt when you consider the spaces that Beasts Clawing at Straws inhabits. Health clubs, dive-bars, and abandoned warehouses all get their due here, and all of which are indicative of a kind of urban leisure space. It gives this film a real post-modern vibe, akin to something cultural scholar Frederic Jamieson might devote a long-winded chapter to in one of his many academic tomes.
Or he might not, because Beasts Clawing at Straws is ultimately very, very pulpy, and isn’t any deeper than said pulp. Kim’s primary objective here is to tell an interlocking story; he absolutely succeeds, but you cannot help but wonder if there’s something missing. I was enamored with the film’s beautiful use of mood lights and its ability to craft a world coated in mysterious feeling purple neon, until I wasn’t and felt a bit like I was playing out the clock. I was also never really out of this film either. I think I am able to reconcile with the fact that I both wanted more from this, and that it was ultimately very hip, stylish and fun. The film very clearly wants to be all of those things, so who am I to say it isn’t a success?