Earlier this year (yes, only this year) Bong Joon-ho made history when his latest film,Parasite, became the first film not in the English language to win Best Picture at the Oscars. To continue the celebration of the South Korean’s career, his first two features are getting re-released this weekend: Barking Dogs Never Bite and the startling Memories of Murder. In the case of his debut, this marks the first time that Barking Dogs Never Bite has received a cinema release in the UK, giving audiences on these shores the first chance to experience the beginning of Bong Joon-ho’s idiosyncratic stylings in the way he intended. 

The film is set in a rundown apartment block, where unemployed hopeful academic Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) lives with his pregnant partner, Eun-sil (Kim Ho-jung). With anxiety and stress mounting over his career path and expectant fatherhood, as well as a less than loving relationship with his wife, it would seem the world around Yun-ju is getting too suffocating to bear. And if only the neighbour’s dog would stop barking. 

As with any debut feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite is never quite up to the task of providing as sophisticated an experience as we have come to expect from Bong Joon-ho. His second film, Memories of Murder, is most certainly more on the level with the likes of Parasite, but there’s something undeniably scrappy and endearing about his first film. It may not walk the tonal tightrope of satire and drama as well as his more celebrated work, but there’s a surprising amount here that signals his path as a filmmaker, with much to admire within.

Those familiar with Parasite will find the surface details easy to spot. There’s some weird goings-on in the building basement, as well as some clear class power struggles at play, with much of Yun-ju’s anxiety stemming from a pressure to perform in a certain way that is expected of him by those in a higher social bracket. The pressures of urban life and how they can begin to make a person crack runs at the heart of this story, and it is a theme that has clearly continued to provoke thought in Joon-ho’s mind as his career has progressed. 

This is a story that takes some strange, dark, often funny turns, with some dollops of slapstick thrown in for good measure amidst the very real urban landscape. There is something macabre going on under it all that occasionally bubbles to the surface, but the overall sensation is of an environment made up of people who are simply getting on with life, and are sometimes led down the wrong way, be it by others in their lives, by the things they see on TV, or simply by their own bad decisions. Nowhere is that better expressed than in the character of Park Hyun-nam (Bae Doona), a naive bookkeeper with dreams of doing something heroic and getting her 15 minutes of fame. 

It is the character of Hyun-nam that really gives the film a heart and a sense of innocence, proving to be a more engaging anchor than the self-pitying Yun-ju. Part of that comes from the charm and wit of Bae Doona’s performance. With wide-eyed bewilderment and a sense of misplaced dedication, it is her performance and her character that makes the largest impression throughout the film. She is perfectly in key with the tone that her director is attempting to strike, and while not every component or performer quite manages to walk the tightrope between tragedy and comedy, Bae Doona struts across it from end to end with energy and ease. 

It is no easy task for a film to manage the tones that this film strikes. It can be very whacky one minute, grim and violent the next (dog lovers, you have been warned). It is an audacious debut, one that clearly marks the development of a unique cinematic voice. That it hits more often than it misses is a testament to the talent of the filmmaking and writing. It is a story of aimless people, often looking to blame others for their own misfortunes when the blame lies somewhat closer to home. It may not be quite as sharp as some of the later works of Bong Joon-ho, but this Barking Dog certainly has plenty of bite. 

Dir: Bong Joon-ho

Scr: Bong Joon-ho, Song Ji-ho, Derek Son Tae-woong

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

Prd: Cha Seung-jae

DOP: Jo Yong-gyu

Music: Jo Seong-woo

Country: South Korea

Year: 2000  

Run time: 106 minutes 

Barking Dogs Never Bite is in select UK cinemas from September 18th 2020.  

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