A Dog of Seoul

Film: Barking Dogs Never Bite
Year: 2000
Director: Bong Joon-ho (also writer)

Ben: “You know, I’ve heard that roaring cats are unable to purr.”
Bong: “There are no cats in my movie.”

About five minutes into Barking Dogs Never Bite, one of the heroes spots himself in the mirror while he tries to hang a Shih Tzu by its leash in the basement of his apartment tower. He’s not really a bad guy, mind you; the dog has been a serious nuisance. Also the man, a young grad student named Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae), is under a lot of stress, constantly henpecked and made to crack impossible quantities of walnuts (literally) by his taxing, enceinte wife. But, damn it all, he’s so decent a fellow that he can’t even bring himself to strangle the poor pooch: instead, he locks it in a forgotten wardrobe where no one will ever find it.

As Yun-ju soon learns, this is not the animal behind all the yappy ruckus. The actual offender is a Miniature Pinscher belonging to a doting old granny a couple floors below his, while the innocent Shih Tzu is owned by a little girl who plans to starve herself to death if he’s not found. Yun-ju is too late to rescue him from a dog-boiling maintenance man. Oh, well. The yipping Pinscher is a greater concern: it really has to be shut up if Yun-ju is going to be able to concentrate on his sole prospect, a professorship which will cost him a $10,000 bribe he doesn’t nearly have. So he hurls the squealing beast off the roof of his building.

Really, he’s not a bad guy. As far as serial mutt murderers go, he’s practically Saint Teresa. But tell that to desk jockey Hyun-nam (Bae Doo-na), an eyewitness to the doggy shot put who sees an opportunity to do some good—and land herself on TV in the process. Finally some conflict, eh?

Barking Dogs Never Bite is a little bit of many things. It’s sort of a comedy, sort of riotous, sort of reserved, sort of sad. There’s an ineludible Kafkaesque timbre to the far-off barking that hounds poor, selfish Yun-ju. There are a couple of Benny Hill chase scenes, and a ghost story intoned around a pot of pup stew. The movie feels something like a reel of Gogolian highlights shishkabobbed into one continuous narrative. Everything that happens seems important, but I can’t say exactly how it all works together. It’s definitely fun, and definitely original—but whether there’s a consummate thematic thread, I’m not certain.

Based, at least, on his exquisite follow-up, the true-crime thriller Memories of Murder (2003), Bong Joon-ho seems too deliberate a director to let a movie get past him with unfinished ideas. (Well, 2006’s explosively popular The Host might defy that hypothesis.) Every scene in a Bong film smacks of careful consideration. More so than many directors, I get the sense that he desires a lot from each shot and achieves it all. Take the scene in Barking Dogs where Yun-ju learns of the grisly death of the professor whose position he hopes to financially finagle into: the framing is tight on Yun-ju and his bearer of bittersweet news, sharing a smoke in a restaurant bathroom, and by the end of the scene there emerges a subtle stretching effect that holds the characters in a static relation to our view but draws the background glacially away. The effect is easy to miss, but obviously intentional. When it comes to what Bong wants to say with it—whether to emulate the influence of the booze and drugs, or emphasize Yun-ju’s descent into a further level of anxiety—I am a bit lost.

The use of yellow in connection to Bae’s character is another instance of inscrutable symbolism: it’s too overt a motif to be accidental, but its meaning remains beyond me. Judging by the story alone, Barking Dogs wants to make a gloomy grin of the way we project our internal dissatisfaction onto the world around us—and it does so with pith and an odd pathos. But watching how it goes about this, I have to imagine there are other layers I haven’t penetrated. Given time, and probably some help, I might reach them.

Then again, I could be very wrong. The movie may be simply about its own wicked humor. Fans of, say, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man should find a flavor to their liking.

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