Though almost boundless in its ambition, Barking Dogs Never Bite, writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s debut feature, never manages to pull itself together to be all it aspires to be. The film is torn between two conflicting major tonal impulses that would go on to define his films’ uniquely tragicomic worldview. The first is a tendency toward bleakly sardonic black humor, which in this case translates to a story of urban psychosis reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, with hints of the sadistic streak that pervades Rosemary’s Baby: Young people are forced to accept that they can’t get anywhere in the big city without adapting to its decadent and thoroughly compromised rules. The film’s second guiding tendency is to please his audience, to be the South Korean answer to Steven Spielberg and to impress viewers with his showman’s knack for constantly manipulating their emotions only to reassure them that they’re being steered toward a cathartic resolution at every turn. It’s a truly unique debut, but one that’s not entirely successful in achieving either impulse.
Barking Dogs Never Bite runs the emotional gamut of romantic comedy, slasher horror, slapstick, and absurdist black humor, sometimes all in one scene. It’s enough to induce the kind of emotional whiplash one might get watching a film by Bong’s notoriously unapproachable peer Lee Myung-se, a South Korean director whose love of abrupt tonal shifts has also made it all too easy for American distributors to ignore his challenging and sometimes even masterful films (all but one of Lee’s films have never acquired U.S. distribution). Barking Dogs Never Bite doesn’t have the same fearlessness that many of Lee’s films do; it lacks that crucial go-for-broke daring that might lead it out on a limb to follow through on either of its dueling emotional states.
The Seoul of Barking Dogs Never Bite is governed by a feeling unique to prematurely burnt-out academics and twentysomethings. It’s a city where nobody can get ahead except by gaming the system, nobody cares about rules, regulations, or courtesies, and dogs are taken care of better than most people. Idealistic Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) wants to become a professor, but he fears he has to bribe the dean of his college to get the job. He’s got a pregnant wife but just doesn’t know if he can stoop to cozying up to anyone for the sake of a better job. Conversely, his wallflower neighbor Hyeon-nam (Bae Doo-na) drifts through her days aimlessly, working as a book-keeper by day and clinging to her best friend’s side by night. She only meets Yun-ju after he is led to homicidal thoughts by the high-pitched yipping of another neighbor’s dog.
As in The Tenant, the inhuman, isolated living conditions of the city itself are at fault for the uncontrollable neuroses of Barking Dogs Never Bite‘s protagonists. On the one hand, the barking dog that’s driving Yun-ju so kill-crazy can’t be picked out from any of the other dogs kept in the building because his apartment complex is essentially a massive, dreary prison/labyrinth/project whose panopticon courtyard overlooks a Costco-sized parking lot. On the other, Hyeon-nam’s defining fixation, specifically her drive to become famous by doing something heroic that gets captured on Closed Circuit Television, is likewise a dream that could only settle into the mind of a city-dweller, someone that simultaneously fears and perversely loves the constant, inhuman attention of a thousand inescapable tiny security cameras. The city essentially turns Yun-ju and Hyeon-nam into deviants respectively determined to kill a dog because it’s making too much noise and to beat someone up on camera.
And therein lies the main problem with Barking Dogs Never Bite: Bong’s story is, at its core, a black comedy. His impulse to protect the viewer by watering down the central malicious sense of humor that characterizes Yun-ju and Hyeon-nam’s problems with subplots that alleviate the film’s queasy tension keeps the film’s ideas unpacked on the surface of the story.
The film’s light touch, specifically the tentative romantic interaction between Yun-ju and Hyeon-nam as well as most of Hyeon-nam’s mostly underdeveloped storyline, is understandably a means of defusing the film’s bleak sense of humor, which mostly revolves around eating or killing dogs. Which would be particularly interesting if Bong made something of Seoul’s history as a city where dog meat has been illegally sold and enjoyed since the mid ‘80s beyond a pat, toothless dog-eat-dog philosophy.
Furthermore, the mechanics of the story are just plain amateurish. Many times the characters will explicitly tell us what they think is wrong with themselves or their environment. Bong also tends to pile in too many sight gags or ideas in any single scene, lingering for much longer than he should, as in a scene where an ominous milky-white cloud of pesticide envelops Hyun-ju while he’s wandering around the local dog park with a canine in tow. After the cloud appears and soon threatens to swallow the pair up, Yun-ju starts to scrutinize a scratch-off lottery ticket. As if we didn’t already get that this guy had conflicting emotions about trying to get ahead quick.
It would’ve been nice to see Bong fully flesh out Barking Dogs Never Bite‘s mean streak as Polanski did in The Tenant, but in many ways, Bong’s film is sufficiently malicious as it is. The funniest line in the film is inarguably when a homeless guy tries to skewer a dog from asshole to mouth with a long metal wire and muses to himself, “Jesus, that thing’s hairy.” Vicious and literally to the point—everything the rest of the film isn’t.
Magnolia Home Entertainment upgraded Barking Dogs Never Bite's image quality from its previous Hong Kong DVD release. The image isn't as dark and the yellows of the characters omnipresent rain slickers don't look as unnaturally bright. The audio mix seems to be relatively the same, though the music soundtrack on Magnolia's release is comparatively a bit more proportional with the film's dialogue.
The film's extras seem like the kind of stuff you might find in a press packet, especially the fawning 11-minute interview with actress Bae Doo-na, now a superstar. As she points out, Barking Dogs Never Bite really helped her career to take off, but she doesn't really have much to say about the film or its production beyond the fact that she wanted to pick unique projects but was also nervous about proving herself on such an early project. This is more the fault of the interviewers than it is Bae's, but still, there should be more to that Q&A, especially since there's nothing from Bong Joon-ho about the film. There's also an idiotic "highlight montage," which is included for unfathomable reasons. The only worthwhile feature is a storyboard-film comparison, which shows you how basic Bong's first impressions of his scenes are, which is actually pretty surprising considering how elaborate and painterly many of his compositions are in this and all of his other films.
Bong's debut is not all it could be, but any film that has a line as hilariously warped as "Jesus, that thing's hairy" deserves some recognition.