Barking Dogs Never Bite, 2000.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho.
Starring Bae Doona, Lee Sung-jae, Kim Ho-jung, Byun Hee-bong, Go Soo-hee and Kim Roi-ha.
An out-of-work professor wages a violent crusade against noisy dogs in his apartment complex.
It’s fitting, in many ways, that Bong Joon-ho’s idiosyncratic first feature Barking Dogs Never Bite hit cinema screens in 2000. A new sort of auteur for a new millennium. Two decades later, and with the world basking in the acidic, satirical glow of director Bong’s latest masterpiece – the Oscar-winning Parasite – his oddball debut is returning to British screens via Curzon Home Cinema. It’s a blackly comedic thriller about class and corruption that is as spiky as it is strange.
Slightly pretentious academic Ko Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) is living in a crowded apartment complex with his pregnant wife (Kim Ho-jung), pondering the bribe he will inevitably have to pay in order to earn himself a gig as a university professor. He’s annoyed by a small, yapping dog in his building and, after considering throwing it from the roof, instead locks it in a cupboard and leaves it for dead. When other local canines begin to disappear, maintenance assistant Park Hyun-nam (Bae Doona) witnesses Ko’s actions and decides to intervene in the hope of becoming famous, like a woman she saw fighting off a bank robber on TV.
Barking Dogs Never Bite unravels with a delightful sense of ill-discipline. It’s an overlong and unwieldy movie, but one that is consistently surprising and enjoyably overblown. Often, the most shocking set pieces are soundtracked to a jaunty piano score, playing with tone to keep the audience off-balance. Just as he would in his subsequent work, director Bong takes a sledgehammer to the boundaries and distinctions between genres, allowing his film to freewheel from broad comedy to terrifying horror – one scene features the extended retelling of a chilling ghost story – as if it’s nothing.
Leading actors Lee Sung-jae and Bae Doona – who would later work with Bong again on The Host – throw themselves into the movie’s offbeat tone completely, embracing the dark and the light of the narrative. This is a film in which there are jokes about news broadcasts and missing dogs, but also scenes that anyone with canine affections will find deeply troubling. It’s shot through with Bong’s distinctive sense of style, utilising straight-on close-ups and artfully contrasting colours – bright yellow raincoats are a recurring motif.
This being a Bong Joon-ho joint, Barking Dogs Never Bite has plenty to say about the world in which it unfolds. It’s a story of resentment between rich and poor, in which people carry out immoral acts while feeling they can justify them as “nobody in this country follows the rules”. Fans of Parasite and Snowpiercer will also note that this film began the director’s fascination with the geography of buildings communicating status, using the towering anonymity of the apartment block – and the grim basement beneath – to illustrate the dynamics between these characters and explain some of their more bizarre actions.
There’s a rough and ready feel to the storytelling, with the fact this is a first feature often showing through the wit and invention. However, many of the constituent parts of the style which has since taken the world by storm are present and correct in Barking Dogs Never Bite. Even 20 years ago, director Bong was already making smart, silly films that, first and foremost, are defiantly and lovingly individual. Ain’t no one making movies like Bong Joon-ho.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.