Film Review: Bong Joon-ho – “Barking Dogs Never Bite”

Bong Joon-ho’s latest Palme d’Or winning film “Parasite” is opening in limited release on Oct. 11. To celebrate I will be taking a look back at the early work of this wonderfully vibrant director.

Barking Dogs Never Bite

By Justin Waters

As someone who loves dogs to the point that I–to my friends bemusement/consternation–use the word “pug” in casual conversation there are few things which fill me with more unease than a movie STARTING with:

No animals were harmed in the making of this film.”

I am glad they mentioned it at the beginning because there are definitely moments that made me question the power of the Korean equivalent of the American Humane Association.

Barking Dogs Never Bite opens with a man looking out a window. He is unsettled with his position and longs to hike in the mountains and sleep in the forests he sees. A dog starts yapping, one of those annoying small dog yaps that seems to go on forever driving nails into your ears until you wish you were possessed of the incredible ability to speak to animals just so you could tell this one dog to, “SHUT THE FUCK UP.” The man decides to do something about it.

He is Yun-ju (Sung-jae Lee), one of the most pathetic protagonists you could ever meet; a reoccurring motif with Bong Joon-ho characters. Yun-ju is an out of work college lecturer desperate to become a university professor. Through an unfortunate accident he gets his chance but first must come up with ten thousand dollars to bribe the dean for the position. It is going to be difficult since the only money coming in is from his pregnant wife (Ho-jung Kim) who seems to disdain him and communicates either through taunts or demands such as having him crack enough walnuts for her to eat because that is all she is hungry for. Having worked hard, kept his grades up, suffered and been dutiful to his wife, still it all amounts to being so poor he is unable to get the job he rightfully deserves–and that goddamn dog keeps yapping!

Meanwhile, there’s Hyeon-nam (Doona Bae) an inept bookkeeper who dreams of being on TV, preferably the news as a local heroine. She hardly stays at her job preferring to either hang out with her friend Jang-Mi (Su-hee Go)–an employee at a shop in their apartment complex who seems to have little faith in her friend’s intelligence–or to help the increasing number of apartment dwellers who turn up searching for their lost dogs. She too dreams of hiking in the woods that border her apartment.

There is also a maintenance man with a nauseating diet, a homeless guy who lives in the basement under a mound of discarded clothing, and the spirit of a long dead repair man known only as “Boiler Kim.”

What connects all these strange individuals outside of dog murder? The apartment complex they all live in and work near. Seeing it you understand the desire to disappear into the woods. It is a huge building with fourteen floors designed not for human comfort but for maximum occupancy. The rooms are tiny, cramped, garbage lines the stairwells. The only respite is out the window or on the roof where there is enough freedom to dry radishes or take a smoke break. Rarely have wide open views provided such a relief.

These people are desperate. Desperate for power, for recognition, for money. Yun-ju is so desperate he sees the world only for the wrongs it has committed to him. So desperate that he is willing to rob others of the small happiness they have been able to find. It is heartbreaking because it feels so true. We are all trapped so close to each other fighting for the same piece of the pie and watching as that piece turns to crust and from crust to crumbs but we keep fighting because we all need hope and anything must be better than this.

Remarkably though is how funny Barking Dogs Never Bite is. Bong Joon-ho is a master of the dark comedy and right from the start he tests this ability to the breaking point. He manages it through his use of framing to tell jokes in a way which reminds us of Wes Anderson or Buster Keaton through facial expressions and staging of his actors and by unique moments that never fail to delight even if they bring us to tears later.

This is a perfect first film for Bong Joon-ho. He always walks a tightrope between hard hitting movies with a message and entertaining popcorn fare. His sensitivity for his characters and intelligence handles the former, his wildly creative filmmaking style takes care of the latter. It is this wonderful mix which makes him such a unique and powerful voice in modern cinema.

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