Barking Dogs Never Bite

 

starstarstarstar

 


Canicide is the order of the day in Bong-Joon-ho’s stylish and mischievous directorial debut, made twenty years ago. 

 
Barking Dogs Never Bite

Barking mad: Kim Jin-goo, Lee Sung-jae and the Shih Tzu

 

Barking Dogs Never Bite has taken twenty years to reach UK screens – and all it took was four Oscars. True, the film launched the career of South Korea’s most famous cinematic export, but why it has languished for so long is one for the gods of distribution. An anarchic, mischievous and ingenious black comedy, it sets down the rule book for Bong Joon-Ho. There’s a creepy basement, burgeoning academics, domineering women, poor reception, tutors, characters crammed into tight spaces and violent about-turns in tone. It’s also a visually stylish lark, with a freewheeling nonchalance reminiscent of the Nouvelle Vague, underlined by an improvisational, jazzy score. If the stars had been aligned differently, Barking Dogs Never Bite could have been the Parasite of its day. But the world was not ready then.

 

It opens with the statement “No animals were harmed in the making of this film”, which should both reassure and disconcert the viewer. Indeed, our canine friends feature prominently throughout the capricious plot and are no allegorical allusion or red herring à la Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (which is also available on Curzon Home Cinema). The film opens on a black screen over which we can hear the incessant yapping of some unseen cur. It’s enough to drive a person crazy. The camera then alights on a vista of woodland, gradually intercepted by the back of our protagonist’s head as he rises into view. Ko Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) is on the phone and when the camera pulls back we realise he’s actually standing in front of a balcony in a faceless apartment block.

 

It’s a neat narrative trick and the next shot follows Yun-ju as he attempts to pinpoint the source of that yapping. The young man is already under considerable stress, struggling to secure a professorship via dubious means, while catering to every whim of his pregnant, overbearing wife (Kim Ho-jung). Dogs aren’t even allowed in the apartment complex, so when he finally stumbles across an unattended Shih Tzu, he scoops it up and bags it. However, just as he’s about to drop it off the rooftop of his block, he’s interrupted by an elderly woman drying her radishes. He then tries the basement, where he attempts to hang the pooch by its lead from an overhanging pipe. But, catching his reflection in a mirror, he bottles out and, for the time being, locks it in a cupboard.

 

Warning: the Shih Tzu is not the only dog in the plot and, this being Bong Joon-ho, there is some canine mayhem, missing dog posters and a variety of heart-broken dog lovers including Yun-ju himself. It’s complicated, but every detail is meticulously woven into the whole, so that even the drying radishes have their day in the sun. All this is played for laughs, of course, and one can never predict where the story will pirouette next, as the director tightens his noose on the narrative. While mining the absurd, Bong takes delight in extracting humour from the minutiae of the everyday, wrapping it all up in a series of stylistic flourishes. Both irreverent and, at times, even elegiac, his is a fiercely original concoction cementing the reputation of a world-class filmmaker. Bong even manages to make the dog killer sympathetic who, in a moment of quiet desperation, cries, “I’m going to the dogs!”

 

Original title: Flandersui gae.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Lee Sung-jae, Bae Doona, Kim Ho-jung, Byun Hee-bong, Go Soo-hee, Kim Roi-ha, Kim Jin-goo.

 

Dir Bong Joon-ho, Pro Cha Seung-jae, Screenplay Bong Joon-ho, Song Ji-ho and Derek Son Tae-woong, Ph Jo Yong-gyu, Pro Des Lee Hang, Ed Lee Eun-soo, Music Jo Seong-woo, Costumes Choi Yun-jung.

 

Uno Films-Curzon.

106 mins. South Korea. 2000. Rel: 18 September 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. No Cert.