When Korean director Bong Joon-ho won the best picture Oscar in 2020 for his near-universally acclaimed Parasite, he suggested that maybe now is the time for Anglophone viewers to get over the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” and discover the world of pleasure awaiting them. Although there’s a bottomless back catalogue of great Korean films out there to catch up with, those who have embraced the challenge of leaping that tiny barrier might enjoy this new, jet-black comedy by Bong’s fellow countryman Kim Yong-hoon, who is making his directorial debut. Based on a Japanese novel by Keisuke Sone, this is an arch, multi-strand, multi-character three-ring circus, revolving around a Louis Vuitton overnight bag full of cash that long-suffering sauna worker Joong-man (Bae Seong-woo) finds in an abandoned locker at work.
While Joong-man sees in the bag a chance to escape his drudgery-filled life, dealing with his overbearing mother and pissed-off wife, another set of characters are no less invested in acquiring this untraceable fortune. Sleazy customs official (Jung Woo-sung) is in hock to gangsters for a debt incurred by his missing wife, while fed-up-and-ready-for-revenge escort (Shin Hyun-bin) is regularly beaten by her vile husband and sees in a besotted client the chance to pull off a Double Indemnity-style con. And then there’s the escort’s imperious boss Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon, a goddess in lipstick and a dab hand with a broken bottle), who knows what it’s like to be hurt by men.
Some of the plot’s manoeuvres are perhaps not as clever as the film-makers seem to think they are, with a temporal two-step shuffle straight out of Pulp Fiction (and scores of other thrillers). But the performances are rich and perfectly pitched, from the leads right down to the comic-relief minor characters, such as Park Ji-hwan’s lowlife sidekick and Youn Yuh-jung – who won an Oscar this year for Minari – as Joong-man’s infinitely annoying mother. The intense colour palette blends neon signs and green-lit interiors with the vast amounts of scarlet blood that flows as a consequence of the frequent violence.
• Beasts Clawing at Straws is released on 13 August on Curzon Home Cinema.