Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) dir. Bong Joon-Ho
Starring: Sung-jae Lee, Doona Bae
By Alan Bacchus
There's an old adage in Hollywood: "never kill the dog." Do whatever you can to any of the heroes ― splatter their brains over the wall, rip out teeth, arms, fingers ― but never, ever kill the dog in a movie. Writer/director Joon-Ho not only kills dogs, he strangles them, tosses them off roofs, skewers them like pigs on a spigot and carves them up to be boiled like stew. In Barking Dogs Never Bite, this conceptually unfriendly idea makes for a jet-black comedy of the peculiar Korean variety. And now that Bong Joon-Ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother) has become a celebrated, Cannes-worthy auteur, his first feature finally sees the light of day in North America on DVD.
Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) is an unemployed, frustrated college instructor. He lives in a drab high-rise complex with his overbearing girlfriend. When a yapping dog annoys him past the breaking point, he relieves his stress by stealing it, with the intention of killing it. His conscience won't allow that, but before he can rescue the doggy, a sadistic janitor has already skinned and boiled it for stew. Meanwhile, Hyeon-nam (Doona Bae), a government worker in the area who dreams of becoming a YouTube celebrity, witnesses one of Yun-ju's acts of cruelty and endeavours to be become the local hero she's always dreamt of and take down the mysterious dog kidnapper.
There's no doubt there's an iconoclastic director behind the camera. The audacious subject matter begs critics and audiences not to notice the picture, either to revile it or go along with the subversive ride. On a technical level, Jong-Ho's direction is pitch perfect steady cam work that roams the high-rise building with ease, slo-motion photography that highlights key comic beats in the action and dramatic camera angles that capture the sanitized uniformity and engulfing feeling of condo-living.
Beneath the surface, Joon-ho creates warm, genuine characters who we desperately want to succeed. Even Yun-ju, despite throwing dogs off the roof to relieve his angst, never comes off as cruel, but full of misplaced anger against a corrupt society that has wronged him. And cute heroine Hyeon-nam and her overweight convenience store clerk BFF are wonderfully drawn underachievers looking for a way to break out of their shamed existences.
It's important to note that these heinous acts of animal cruelty are never shown on screen and there's even a clear disclaimer at the beginning telling us no animals were harmed during the making of the picture. So, for those who can at least stomach the notion of killing dogs for comedy, Joon-ho fans will certainly take delight in his delicious screen debut.