Whenever a filmmaker of note premieres a new film, it’s a good time to revisit that director’s first film to gauge how far they’ve come as an artist. With Okja now on Netflix, we take a look back at Bong Joon-ho’s Barking Dogs Never Bite.
Humor and horror are intimate bedfellows in the films of Bong Joon-ho, the South Korean New Waver whose dark-light, heavy-yet-hilarious genre mélanges rank among the most exciting films this young century has seen thus far. And yet, while the adrenalizing experience of rollercoastering from sunshine to abyss is pleasurable in and of itself, the tonal dissonance of Bong’s pictures also evokes, complements and often stems directly from one of the director’s recurring thematic obsessions: the absurd fight of individuals against bastions of evil—be it cruel indifference or otherworldly terror, whether they be a radioactive monster in the Han River, an outdated law enforcement bureaucracy or class division itself as embodied by a futuristic train whose compartments horizontally stratify the passengers based on socioeconomic class.
Comedy in a Bong picture, which typically oscillates between deadpan and slapstick, is almost always tinged with the pathos of futility, of plans gone awry and the bizarre, often nightmarish situations in which one finds oneself despite honest attempts to be somewhere, anywhere, else.
In Bong’s debut film, 2000’s Barking Dogs Never Bite, Yun-ju (Sung-jae Lee) certainly wants to be somewhere else. (If possible, he might even opt for another life.) A self-doubting grad student whose prospects of becoming a professor hinge upon his ability to bribe the dean with money he doesn’t have, Yun-ju is at the end of his rope. It hardly helps that his wife bosses him around constantly, treatment he’s helpless to protest, not only because she’s more headstrong than him but because she’s the one paying the bills.
All this we find out gradually as the film unfolds, because when the movie begins, all we know about is the straw that’s breaking the camel’s back: incessant yapping from an unseen dog hidden somewhere within the apartment complex in which Yun-ju lives. In this opening scene, the barking goes on and on, getting into his head and ours. The dog has nothing to do with Yun-ju’s main troubles, except it’s also got everything to do with them—it’s a creature that is both a literal nuisance and a metaphor for the itch Yun-ju can’t scratch, the fulfilment he can’t find.
Before long, he’s decided to locate and murder this dog (yup), and, in the process, becomes entangled in the story of Hyeon-nam (Doona Bae), a young woman who works in the apartment offices and aspires to be on TV. Her days are normally spent listlessly phoning her friend while slumped half-asleep over her desk, but recently, she’s been receiving a bunch of Lost Dog flyers from residents seeking approval to hang them up. This string of animal disappearances prompts Hyeon-nam to take action (the dogs-in-peril plot and amateur detective work have curious resonances with Bong’s later murder mystery films, Memories of Murder and Mother), action that she hopes will, at long last, win her a spot before the cameras. As Yun-ju and Hyeon-nam pursue their canine-related endeavors separately—before eventually crossing paths—several other side characters become involved, including a maintenance guy with a very particular dietary preference and a homeless man living below the apartments.
Dogs are the obvious factors linking these players together, but so is the hardships that stem from failed aspirations, financial troubles or both. For Yun-ju and Hyeon-nam, tribulation is explicit, whereas for other characters it’s implied through physical appearances and their occupations (or lack thereof). Yun-ju’s response to his plight illuminates one of the only recourses such people—those deemed insignificant by society—have: losing themselves within busyness as a means of temporarily dispelling the oppressive invariance of their dead-end lives.
Hyeon-nam’s solution is not much better. Her crusade to save the dogs likely arises in part from a genuine sense of moral responsibility, but it is also a desperate grasping at straws that she hopes will lead to something better. She turns to wishfulness the same way that Yun-ju turns to cynicism.
Often, Bong visually evokes the absurdity of his characters’ schemes, such as in choosing to capture the start of a foot chase between man and dog using an extreme long shot. The camera’s distance from the action stifles the would-be energy of the moment, the stillness of the buildings crowding the rest of the image, as if Bong and DP Jo Yong-gyu are taking the perspective of a higher power which observes the efforts and agendas of the ordinary with the brutal disinterest of an apathetic kid gazing at ants bustling atop a molehill.
In the way it revels in dry humor, in the hilarious, almost unconscionable ease with which Bong swings between mirth and the macabre, Barking Dogs Never Bite is more of a comedy than any of the director’s later movies. But the most fascinating thing about the film is the forlorn soul that emerges from beneath the comic trappings. In a beautiful shot near the end of the film, Yun-ju and Hyeon-nam, both inebriated, sprint in tandem down an empty road, the glow of street lamps guiding their passage. “Once we ran together like this,” he says, and though he is referring to an earlier moment when she chased him through the halls of the apartment complex, the line seems to be referencing more than that memory. As the camera tracks sideways to keep abreast with the two runners, filming their profiles, a sense of indirection prevails, articulating the way both characters have been feeling since the start of the film. We see neither the road ahead nor the one behind, and neither character is able to escape the confines of the frame. They instead seem to be running in place, like hamsters on a wheel or Antoine Doinel in the famous long take at the end of The 400 Blows, pushing every inch of their bodies into motion, but getting nowhere.
Somehow, running nowhere together seems better than running somewhere alone. A pinprick of hope peeks through the melancholy. Bong ends his movie by echoing the very first few shots of the movie, instead with a gently optimistic note. Most of Barking Dogs Never Bite is set within a modernizing urban district, but the film opens and closes with characters contemplating nature, whether via gazing out at a vast forest or actually hiking through it in search of the mountain on the other side. Just like transcendence in Snowpiercer came in the form of literally stepping outside the social system of the train (as The Nerdwriter points out in an excellent video essay), so Bong’s debut locates freedom—or the possibility of it, anyway—in the reality that exists outside society’s strictures. The path forward may appear to be strewn with insurmountable obstacles, against which struggle often seems useless, but maybe the path forward isn’t forward at all. Maybe it’s outward, upward and beyond.
Jonah Jeng is a writer and film studies graduate student whose work has been featured in The Film Stage, Taste of Cinema and Film Matters. For him, joy is found in the company of loved ones, the enchantment of cinema and the wholesale consumption of avocado egg rolls.