Money is the Root of All EVIL! “Beasts Clawing at Straws” reviewed! (Blu-ray / Artsploitation Films)

A middle-aged man working a meager job at a gentleman’s bathhouse finds a Louis Vuitton bag full of money when routinely checking the storage lockers at closing.  Unsure about what to do with the money, he stows the bag away in the backroom and continues a moral, yet pauper’s, life while dealing with financial and family troubles at home.  Meanwhile, a border customs agent finds himself in severe debt with an unstable loan shark after his girlfriend skates and disappears with a large borrowed sum.  With a week to come up with the money, plus interest, he calls upon his distant cousin to assist in scamming a scammer who illegally came into some money, but things go awry when an overly friendly and clingy cop begins to snoop around.  Lastly, a prostitute grinds tirelessly to work off a large debt her abusive husband continues to blame her for with night after night beatings.  She jumps into bed with a young, handsome foreigner and her eager to support female boss to off her husband and collect the insurance money.  Yet, these troubled souls find that sticking to their convictions doesn’t always bode well as the unexpected happens in a blink of an eye.

The Asian film machine has mastered the art of the crime thriller from a proven track record that began with Akira Kurosawa films, if not even before that, and has chronically grown stronger, and sometimes more peculiar, with choice stylistic elements, suggestive themes, and extreme violence that has garnered, to much disdain, Westerner attention over the last 20 years with films like Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” and Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s “Internal Affairs” being Americanized with a Hollywood remake.  With that being said in an upward trend of remakes spilling over the edge, there would be no eye-brow raising surprise if the introductory film, the tri-narrative crime drama idiomatically titled “Beasts Clawing at Straws,” from South Korean filmmaker, Kim Yong-hoon, will one day grace the English silver screens in a diluted variation of a Brad Pitt featured carbon copy.  Based of the Keisuke Sone neo-noir novel of the same name, Kim Yong-hoon’s pulpy impression of against-the-wall misdeeds is dog-eat-dog dark comedy gold.  “Beasts Clawing at Straws” is produced by Jang Won-seok (“The Gangster, The Cop, and The Devil”) and is a production of Megabox Plus M films (“Zombie for Sale”) and B.A. Entertainment.

The three prong, greed-catapulting narrative converge characters separately at first and then string them linearly together when the picture becomes clearly what exactly each one of them is chasing, but every story is magnetized to a single focal point, a person under immense pressure, stress, and the malice forces that thirst for their humility, kinetically embarking on the bad choice choo-choo steaming toward the station of vary bad things.  Bae Seong-woo stars as a downtrodden Joong-man, a middle-aged man stuck in the rut of poverty with a geriatric, browbeating mother, a fatigued wife, and busting his rump in a dead end job.  Seong-woo combats himself as a man tight rope walking the thin line of ethic principles when opportunity knocks at his door, but his ill-timed strike to grab life by the balls blows up in his face in a farce of instant karma leaves him less than what he had before.  Then there’s a Tae-young, a comfortably Governmental positioned customs agent facing a different kind of hardship when his ex-girlfriend, Yeon-hee, disappears with a borrowed lump sum of a gangster’s money and he’s left on the fence.  “Illang:  The Wolf Brigade’s” Jung Woo-sung plays into the desperate stench of the superstitious and ambitious customs agent.  Slightly cradling the severity of the situation, Jung amply positions Tae-young’s dilemma that resembles spearfishing in a barrel and he’s the fish.  The last story follows the abused wife Mi-ran, played reservedly by Shin Hyun-bin as a desperate woman looking to bank her soon-to-be dead’s insurance money.  When Mi-ran is abetted by motive-dueling pair of instigators, she finds that paying her debt can be more severe than ever imagined.  While sitting back and basking in the stir-craziness of the leads’ turmoiled chaos, the best characters of the film are the supporting roles of Kim Jun-han as an intestine devouring, fanny-pack wearing henchman, Park Ji-hwan as Tae-young’s bumbling, but begrudgingly loyal distant cousin, and Jung Man-sik as a breezy mobster with a cherry, yet malevolent disposition.  Youn Yuh-jung, Jin Kyung, Jung Ga-ram, Bae Jin-wong, and Heo Dong-won round out the cast.

Non-linear yet interconnected in story, “Beasts Clawing at Straws” hawks a Tarantino layered thriller with colorful deplorables from all walks of life and luxuries.  Kim Yong-hoon nourishes the unbridled, free-for-all nature of diving into the murky, shark-infested waters uncaged and tethered with cuts of raw steaks dangling from the pelvis area in this two wrongs don’t equal a right account of mistrusting desperation and misguided optimism.  Kim’s style echoes the likes of the popular “Pulp Fiction” filmmaker along the lines of shooting techniques and a frank view of violence to tell the frantic clutching of hanging onto what is left of tattered lives and borrowed time while disavowing pure, unadulterated nihilism by at least giving characters a grain of hope.  With any non-linear, multiple moving part films, individual aspects tend to become lost in order for pacing and “Beasts Clawing at Straws” doesn’t fall into the excluded category as factors that play into the main quandary are left hanging, such as in Yeon-hee’s circumstantial results of jetting off with a mobster’s money as the assumption is there, but nothing is fully concrete in her storyline.  The same indiscernible spousal battery stemmed from Mi-ran and her husband’s severe debt that leads to transgressions beyond marital misuse isn’t privy to the audience of how circumstances come about surrounding their predicament and we’re forced to speculate and shoulder an explanation that doesn’t quite feel justified.  However, neither of the slapdash developments hinder “Beast Clawing for Straws’” steamrolling posture to get that desirable bag full of problem-solving, filthy lucre. 

Artsploitation Films delivers a stylish and avaricious South Korea crime drama with “Beasts Clawing for Straws” into the U.S. Blu-ray home video market. The not rated BD25, high-definition 1080p release is presented in a widescreen, 2.39:1 aspect ratio, and nears the epitome of flawless. Aside from the picture slightly flickering, more noticeably on solid colored backdrops, the hue palette is absolutely gorgeous with the neon lights of South Korean cities, the breathtaking silhouettes of the natural mountains adjacent to a lifelessly still lake, and the variety of settings from an airy fish house to a modern, symmetrically designed bordello denote a keen eye by Kim Tao-sung. The South Korean language 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound couldn’t be any better with a crystal clear aptitude for strong dialogue balanced in front of a robust soundtrack accompanied by deep range of ambience from fire crackling to the faint hint of rain drops audible from inside a restaurant, solidifying the depth package as well. English subtitles are available along with an English dub track in a dual channel Dolby stereo. What’s lacking with this release is bonus material as there is virtually nothing besides four Artsploitation trailers and the film’s own theatrical trailer. Parlous and deadpan funny, “Beasts Clawing at Straws” amazes as Kim Yong-hoon’s first time effort with the technical grace and the story construction that has been a paradigm for only a handful of notable directors able to execute an impeccable result.

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Death Fears No EVIL in Takashi Miike’s “First Love” reviewed! (Well Go USA / Blu-ray)


Orphaned boxer Leo grows up to be an up-and-coming star in the sport. After losing a match by TKO from a soft punch, Leo is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that sends himself into despair. In another part of town, the established yakuza and the imported Chinese mafia boil toward an inevitable war over turf and drugs. When Kase, a junior enforcer, betrays his yakuza family, scheming with a crooked cop to steal drugs for profitable gain, the tide turns blood red as the yakuza naively blames the Chinese. Caught in the middle is a drug addicted prostitute named Monica, a slave to the yakuza for her father’s past mishaps, who is kept locked away in a small apartment overseen by a yakuza lackeys, romantic couple Yasu and Julie, that also use the apartment to control drug flow. When Kase plan to raid the apartment and steal the drugs goes array, Yasu winds up dead and Monica escapes, running into Leo who has nothing left to live for except to protect Monica. A distraught-induced psychotic Julie, the deadly yakuza, the Chinese Mafia, a double-crosser and his crooked cop partner, a delusional girl of the night, and one apathetic boxer clash in a single night’s ultraviolet web.

Extreme Japanese auteur Takashi Miike fastens a lively tongue-and-cheek and supremely savage crime thriller in his latest mad yakuza film, amiably entitled, “First Love,” also known “Hatsukoi.” “First Love” is anything but friendly and pleasant as the street of Tokyo run red with blood or else the 2019 released film wouldn’t be a Takashi Miike trademark special. Penned by Miike’s long time collaborator, Masa Nakamura, the filmmaker’s affection for horror eludes this title that hones more toward the unpleasantries of clan betrayals, snarky criminal shenanigans, and, of course, a flavor for mega violence that become a maelstrom angrily surrounding a demoralized boxer and the victimized forced-into-prostitution young woman he aims to selfishly protect while in his mental clout regarding his mortality. Produced by OLM, Inc production company headquartered in Tokyo takes a step away from manga with “First Love,” a step that has been evolved over the last few years, but may have contributed to some of the illustrated content that seemingly has infiltrated into the third act with an initial explosiveness in the beginning portions of a car chase scene.

Cast as Leo Katsuragi, the boxer, is Masataka Kubota, a familiar face from another Miike film, “13 Assassins,” and most recently from the heavily Japanese cultured specter feature, ‘Tokyo Ghoul.” Leo’s lighter weight physique and fresh face has Masataka look the part of a promising fighter whose positioned for fame early into the story, but that framework comes to a screeching halt when he’s destined for a tumorous death. When Leo is coupled with Monica, a drug addicted forced in prostitution plagued with crippling hallucinations side effects, the repressed Leo finds himself sheltering someone with more burden on her shoulders than upon his own. Monica’s portrayed by Sakurako Konishi in what’s essentially her first major role and being paired as a scared, lonely, and crazy character coupled with a stoic vet in Masataka makes for an easy dynamic. Shôta Sometani’s chin deep in trouble Kase goes without saying that Sometani’s unfathomable range and charisma adds an aloof comic relief along with Kase’s dishonest detective slipped covertly into by “Ichi the Killer” himself, Nao Ohmori and pursued by a retribution spirited girlfriend, Julie, of her slain yakuza boyfriend; a role spearheaded with such energy and gusto from Rebecca Eri Rabone, credited solely as Becky, who has a slight Cynthia Rothrock vibe. “First Love” is no slave to boorish performances from Takahiro Miura (“Shin Godzilla”), Cheng-Kuo Yen, Sansei Shiomi, and Mami Fujioka.

“First Love” emerges as a smart and fun battle royal of decimation in the anarchist criterion. One would think a prolific director such as Takashi Miike would wear out his welcome with tired and stale filmic bread, crumbling with every soggy rinse and repeat. That’s not the case with “First Love.” Why is it entitled “First Love” anyway, you ask? The question’s open for viewer interpretation, much like most of Miike’s suggestive elegant style, and presents an illuminating unexplored journey in itself. A ventured guess would be that Leo and Monica have never experienced the feeling previously in either content or a labored life with Leo being an impassive athlete and Monica an escort since high school. The corollary of bumping into each other by chance results in the unorthodox dismantling of two rival criminal organizations, baring then an age-old theme of love conquers all and renders the mystics of destiny fueled from from within all the way easter egging sexual taboos inside his brazen, sometimes insane, transgression storyline. Either way, Takashi Miike helms a tremendous brutal-comedy that brands him as being the Martin Scorsese of Japanese filmmaking.

Blades, guns, and a fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, “First Love” has mainstream aptitude with a carnage driven crime syndicate finesse and is now available on a two-disc, dual format Blu-ray and DVD release from Well Go USA Entertainment. Encased in a slipcover, the not rated feature is presented in full HD, 1080p, and in a widescreen, 16:9 aspect ratio. This review will focus it’s review on the Blu-ray quality. Much of Miike’s style is neo-noir basking in very grounded color palette that’s occasionally adorned by the neon brights of Tokyo. Often does Miike composite in his work and “First Love” is no exception with a brief manga nearly a rallying ending; the illustration is super sharp, a visual pop of blue and white, and, obviously, clean. Ultra-fine details add to a prizing fatalism and even the tasteful gore, on a granular level, passes the screen test. Some scenes appear sleeker than others inside a dark scope coded with darker shades of green and yellow, but the overall result smothers any kind of inconsistency. The Japanese and Chinese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks savor every last audiophile morsel. The clear dialogue renders nicely, big effects and action sequences offer a wide range, and the depth covers more than enough ground surrounded by hustle and bustle of the urban element. Kôji Endô’s enchantingly lethal score will immerse you right into the mix and provide a slick culture twist upon classical composition. The English subtitles are well paced and mostly accurate as I did catch one grammatical mistake. Incased inside a slight embossed titled cardboard slipcover, the release also offers a teaser and a theatrical run trailer. Cynical on the surface and romantically submersible to the core, “First Love” is a Takashi Miike instant favorite of amusing antagonism and shorn almost completely of genial garments.

Own Takashi Miike’s “First Love” on Blu-ray+DVD combo set!