After watching “The Host” I had an urge to revisit Bong Joon-ho’s much lower budget debut film from 2000 “Barking Dogs Never Bite”. With some student films and an apprenticeship as an assistant director behind him, he creates a charmingly quirky and somewhat rambling shaggy dog story that skips lightly yet poignantly over dog soup, toilet paper rolling down the street, cracked walnuts, a boiler ghost story, bribe money hidden in a birthday cake, decapitation from a subway train and dogs that can’t fly. As in “The Host” Bong Joon-ho infuses his story with a critique of certain aspects of Korean society – here painting a picture of a sterile soulless urban landscape in which dreams and ambitions are swallowed up by the harsh realities of social and economic progress. It is a comedy though – dark and bittersweet but one with some truly hilarious moments – but underneath it is a constant nagging ache of modern angst.
It is a very assured debut film in which the director not only takes chances with some of the subject matter (making cruelty to animals rather amusing) but also the pacing which zigs and zags all over the place. For example in one scene we are in the middle of a tense claustrophobic moment and then are suddenly listening to a lengthy and somewhat pointless (in context to the story) rendition of a ghost story – yet it all somehow stitches itself together in a peculiar offbeat pattern of affection. One element that Bong has brought to his three very different films (also “Memories of Murder” 2003) is a clear affection for his all too human, not overly bright and fallible main characters. Whether it is a muddled cop chasing a serial killer or a mundane family chasing a mutated monster, the characters are not your typical film protagonists but instead simple folks making do as best they can and not necessarily being very effective. This goes for “Barking Dogs” as well as it centers around an unemployed dog hater, a janitor dog lover (as in culinary) and a sleepy-eyed slacker.
Bong places his characters within a large sprawling nondescript faceless apartment complex in which people burrow into their small holes and remain invisible to their neighbors. Each floor faces the outside world and the walkway connects floors and is visible to the other apartments in the complex – and of course to the eye of the camera and Bong makes good use of this physical set up – in particular during a chase scene that is filmed from a distance as the runners tear up and down various floors in hilarious pursuit. Yoon-ju (Lee Jung-jae) is a dispirited emasculated yuppie who has graduated from good schools but is unable to get a job as a professor because he can’t play the game – drinking, sucking up and the giving of bribes to the senior professor. His wife is pregnant and working and this allows her to boss him around unmercifully to the point where he is a beaten man cracking bags of walnuts for her (nutcracker being a metaphor perhaps for his wife and his lack of manhood). When a yapping dog begins to bark endlessly in a cascade of shrill noise, it begins to drive Yoon-ju crazy as if he is in an Edgar Allen Poe story. He decides to do something about it – something that may upset some viewers. But afterwards the barking still continues. Wrong dog. When he finally thinks he has solved the problem he returns only to find his wife has brought a poodle home – and he is told that he is responsible for cleaning up after it.
The missing dog comes to the attention of Hyun-nam (Bae Doo-na) a listless not very ambitious member of the custodial staff in charge of paying bills and stamping posters to be put up. All she really likes doing is hiking in the woods and hanging out with her portly friend eating snacks and talking. But she sees this as an opportunity to be a media hero and when she sees a man in another building testing gravity with a canine she sets off on a madcap chase to track him down. Bae Doo-na is simply marvelous and steals the film with her deadpan noodles hanging out of her mouth expressions and serious comic antics. When she pulls her hood down around her face like a junior female ninja in order to do battle it is a wonderful film moment. In the end though very little is resolved in this sly slice of life story – just a droll eye shed on the human condition that encompasses all of us as we take small sometimes distasteful steps to get through life.
My rating for this film: 8.0