Small Screen Berkeley: ‘Beasts Clawing at Straws’ and ‘Collective’

Streaming: A solid, entertaining mystery from South Korea; and a documentary that warns about the damage done when local journalism is stifled.

Beasts Clawing at Straws. Photo: Courtesy Indie PR

There was a brief moment at the turn of the century when every new Chinese epic was marketed as the next Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers was among several early 21st-century wuxia films given this marketing treatment — to, it should be noted, rapidly diminishing returns.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the same playbook is being applied to Jipuragirado japgo sipeun jimseungdeu (Beasts Clawing at Straws, currently streaming via the Virtual Roxie). Produced in South Korea — and featuring a twisty and complex plot — it’s being widely touted as the next Parasite.

Let’s be clear from the get-go: country of origin aside, Beasts Clawing at Straws is really nothing like Parasite, featuring none of that remarkable film’s pointed economic and political commentary. So what does that leave us with? A solid, entertaining, but not particularly thought-provoking mystery — enough to earn a recommendation, but not enough to presage further Oscar glory for the Republic of Korea.

Written and directed by Yong-Hoon Kim and based on a novel by Japanese author Keisuke Sone, Beasts tells the story of a bag full of money possessed (at different times) by a struggling working man, an escort with an abusive husband, and the escort’s sympathetic but two-faced boss. The first half of the film demands your full attention; if you aren’t concentrating, you may get lost in Beasts’ labyrinthine plot and gallery of deeply flawed characters.

Assuming you make it through that first half with your comprehension of the narrative intact, you’ll be rewarded with a well-crafted and highly entertaining second half. Be prepared for figurative (and literal) back-stabbing, double and triple-dealing, and a villainous Jaws-style villain who spends much of the film snacking on raw meat when he isn’t disposing of uncooperative people.

‘Collective’: Reminds us of the importance of independent journalism in a democracy

Collective. Photo: Courtesy Larsen Associates

In 2015, a fire at the Colectiv night club in Bucharest, Romania left 27 revelers dead and dozens more in hospital. 37 of the injured later succumbed to their wounds; protesters took to the streets and the national government fell. Collective (streaming at both Pacific Film Archive and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood) documents the efforts of a small newspaper, the Sports Gazette, to uncover the corruption at the heart of the Romanian medical system.

Bacterial infections that could have been ameliorated by better care and efficacious cleaning products contributed to the deaths of the fire’s additional three dozen victims — but hospitals around Romania had been purchasing anti-bacterials in bulk from Hexi Pharma, a pharmaceutical company with a bad habit of selling extremely diluted products at full price. Working in unofficial alliance with the country’s new health minister — a former patients’ advocate with a sterling reputation as a straight arrow — the Gazette’s journalists pulled a thread that unraveled a skein of establishment bribes and payoffs.

Collective provides a reminder of the importance of independent journalism in a democracy. As our own government has long since declared journalists the enemies of the people, it’s also a warning about the damage done when those voices are silenced or stifled. Listen carefully.