What would you do if you found a bag stuffed full of cash?
It’s a question we’ve all whimsically asked friends and have in turn answered as part of a game of Truth, and Beasts Clawing at Straws, the opening Gala film at the London East Asia Film Festival attempts to answer it.
In short, nothing good.
Shot out of chronological sequence, the crime thriller story revolves around a bag of money and the intersecting lives of escort boss Yeon-Hee (Jeon Do-yeon, The Shameless), a down-on-his-luck customs officer, Tae-Young (Jung Woo-sung, The Good, the Bad, the Weird), and Joong-Man (Bae Seong-woo), a poor sauna worker forced to care for his sick mother and overworked wife.
When he finds a bag stuffed with money in a locker, he hides it in storage, caught between the desire to take it and the creeping suspicion that it is dirty money.
On the other side of town Tae-Yeong is in desperate need of funds to pay off a mob boss after he co-signed on a loan with his girlfriend, who disappeared when they came to collect the debt.
Elsewhere an escort called Mi-Ran enters into a dangerous deal with one of her clients, who she asks to kill her abusive husband.
Beasts is a glorious crime thriller that depicts good people doing bad things, and bad people doing terrible things. There’s something distinctly Pulp Fiction in the film’s delivery, with its Neo-Noir aesthetics and the bright, neon colour palette contrasted with the dark, moody shots of the night.
There’s a light dusting of Quentin Tarantino in director Kim Yong-Hoon’s feature debut which is no surprise as he lists the American powerhouse as an inspiration.
The bathtub scene in Beasts was influenced by the gruesome wood chipper scene in Fargo, for example, and a strand of black comedy is woven into the fabric of the storytelling, giving it a comical, social commentary vibe.
None of the characters are redeemable, and yet the strong cast compels the audience to root for them – even when they commit unspeakable evil.
With an engaging script and universal appeal, the film continues an upward trend of Korean cinema having its time on a global scale.
LEAFF takes place over the course of three days and features 10 films from Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. It is a testament to London’s appetite for East Asian film: Despite the coronavirus pandemic and cinema restrictions, the festival, which Mayor of London Sadiq Khan calls “the capital’s most celebrated champion of East Asian cinema” managed to secure screenings and filled cinema seats.
With such a selection of films, it’s no wonder.