VOD film review: Barking Dogs Never Bite
Seeds of what’s to come8
Lasting impact of its own6
Josh Slater-Williams | On 18, Sep 2020
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Lee Sung-Jae, Bae Doona, Kim Ho-jung, Byun Hee-Bong
Watch Barking Dogs Never Bite online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema
South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has previously said in interviews that he considers his 2003 sophomore breakout Memories of Murder to be something akin to his “true” debut feature. Whether or not that has anything to do with his actual debut feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), underperforming financially in its home nation – and only belatedly being distributed in many international territories – is a question only the man himself, or possibly a therapist, can answer. In the US, distribution rights were only finally acquired in the summer of 2009, around the time when Bong’s Mother received rave reviews at Cannes. In the UK, Barking Dogs Never Bite played at the London Film Festival in 2000 but has otherwise never had an official release until now, a time when Bong’s star has never been higher after Parasite’s game-changing Oscars haul and global box office success.
Barking Dogs Never Bite is a dark comedy that shines a misanthropic light on Korean society via a microcosm of an apartment complex and the businesses in the surrounding area. The film opens with a disclaimer that no animals were harmed during its making, which is absolutely necessary given that the ways in which people choose to treat a growing number of ill-fated canines is used to comment on human morality – think A Fish Called Wanda, but if Michael Palin had deliberately been trying to kill those poor dogs.
The ensemble is packed with oddball characters, but the film largely centres itself around two. We’re introduced first to Yun-ju (Lee Sung-Jae), a broke academic desperate for professor tenure and facing a strained relationship with his pregnant wife, Eun-sil (Kim Ho-jung), with whom he lives in a crumbling apartment building. Amidst his mental breakdown, he becomes obsessed with the incessant barking of a dog in a neighbouring flat, to the extent that he decides he has no choice but to “take care” of the pup.
His actions eventually lead to encounters with Hyun-nam (Bae Doona, delightful here), an administrator who has to give all lost dog notices an official stamp or they’ll be removed from local walls or signposts. Something of a slacker, she longs for a degree of fame in the vein of a bank teller seen on TV who became famous after stopping a robbery. When the number of missing dogs in the area escalates and she also witnesses the attempted offing of one of them, she sees her chance and takes a turn into amateur sleuthing and heroics.
Is there a good, clear reason why Barking Dogs Never Bite has been without distribution in the UK while follow-ups Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, Snowpiercer, Okja and Parasite have all taken off to varying degrees of success? Not really. But while this is absolutely a strong calling card that sows the seeds for many of Bong’s recurring thematic, stylistic and tonal interests, it’s unlikely to emerge as anyone’s new favourite from the director. Navigating arguably unwieldy narratives became one of his major strengths later on, but the disparate threads here don’t quite click and the jazz score implemented throughout never truly fits the material outside of one or two brief moments – namely a thrilling foot chase scene that recalls an early episode of beloved anime Cowboy Bebop.