Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Films of Bong Joon-ho: Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) 
Directed by: Joon-ho Bong.
Written by: Joon-ho Bong and Ji-ho Song and Derek Son Tae-woong.
Starring: Sung-Jae Lee (Yun-ju), Doona Bae (Hyeon-nam), Hee-Bong Byun (Janitor), Su-hee Go (Jang-Mi), Ho-jung Kim (Eun-Sil Bae), Kim Roi-ha (Shadow Man), Kim Jin-goo (Granny).
Going back to watch the debut film of a filmmaker whose later work you love is always a doubled edged sword. On one level, you can see it with more generous eyes than if you saw as the work as an unknown – seeing seeds and themes and motifs that the director would go onto hone in their later films. On another level, it’s unfair to hold someone like Bong Joon-ho to the standard of The Host or Mother when you watch his first film – Barking Dogs Never Bite. As a film all on its own, it’s fine. But you can also see why the film never really made a splash in North America outside the festival circuit (and not even the major ones) and took a decade to come out on DVD here – and only then, because Bong had become a name. It is a film where you can see the seeds of some of what Bong would go onto do far better in his other films. But it’s also a film in which Bong seems to be trying too hard to shock you – something some of those other Korean directors tried, but Bong never really did. It’s an admirable first effort – but also quite clearly the weakest feature of his career.
This is the type of film that opens with a credit assuring you that no dogs would hurt during the making of this film – and its needed, because quite frankly, it’d be tough to stomach otherwise. The main character is Yun-ju (Sung-Jae Lee), who wants to become a University professor, but to do that requires money – which he doesn’t have – so right now he’s underemployed, and miserable. His wife Eun-sil (Ho-jung Kim) basically supports the couple all by herself – and does not let her husband forget it. Yun-ju is being driven mad by a constant barking dog of one of his neighbors in the apartment complex. He thinks he’s figured out the offending dog – and when he captures it, he first tries to throw it off the roof, then tries to hang it – but backs away both times, ending up locking it in a cabinet in the basement of the apartment instead. It is not the last dog that Yun-ju will try to dispose of in the film. Then there is Hyeon-nam (Doona Bae), a lazy office drone who works at the apartment, who dreams of herself being a hero. The missing dogs (yes, there will be more) give her a chance to try and act out her heroic fantasies by catching whoever is doing it, and bringing them to justice. The other major character is the Janitor of the office building (Hee-Bong Byun), a very poor man, who seizes on the opportunity of all these dead dogs to increase the meat intake in his diet. He won’t even be the only person eating dog in this movie.
So yeah, it’s that kind of movie – one with a lot of dog murder, and dog eating. But the film isn’t extreme in terms of the imagery, or even all that disturbing. Bong keeps things relatively comedic in tone – and while this is a dark comedy, it clearly is a comedy. It is a film that kind of runs out of steam in terms of its plot at some point – there are more dogs introduced, more shocking moments – but it’s all just basically there to keep things floating along.
There are some problems with the film. As many people have pointed out, there really isn’t a sympathetic character in the film – at least not among the major ones. They are all pretty horrible people – and even more of a problem, they are all fairly one note. Bong often has complicated characters – but not here. What is interesting in terms of what Bong would go on to do is the portrait of the apartment building as a whole – as a collective group of some kind. You certainly do see this in many of his films going forward – as well as his obvious sympathy for the downtrodden – those who have been left behind by society. In a fairly surprising turn, the character you feel the most sympathy for is the homeless man who eats dogs – who late in the film we see give a television interview after being arrested for all the dog murders (he didn’t commit) where he talks about how he likes jail – at least there, he is fed well. It is a classic Bong move to do that sort of thing with a character like that.
But overall, Barking Dogs Never Bite is merely an adequate film. It’s too long at nearly two hours, when even 90 minutes would probably be stretching it if we’re being honest. And once the premise is established, I’m not sure Bong does all that much with it until the end. It’s the type of film that probably would have been forgotten – if Bong hadn’t gone on too much greater things.

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