Joon-ho BongRoe-ha KimHo-jung KimHie-bong Byeon
Barking Dogs Never Bite
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Writer: Joon-ho Bong, Ji-ho Song, Derek Son Tae-woong
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Actor: Sung-jae Lee, Doona Bae, Hie-bong Byeon, Ho-jung Kim, Roe-ha Kim, Jeong-seon Seong
Format: 106 minutes
Website category: Asian
Review date: 10 October 2010
It's a Korean black comedy from the director of Memories of Murder, The Host and Mother. I didn't really like it. It pulls itself together somewhat towards the end, but at the halfway point I was on the point of giving up. Also, in the director's words, "it was a total flop at the box office."
The problem, I think, is the story. It's often just a bunch of randomly mean things happening, which takes a long time to coalesce into any kind of narrative. The main character is a university lecturer (Sung-jae Lee) who's treated like a doormat by his pregnant wife and develops a dislike of dogs. More specifically, he tries to kill them. This is occasionally amusing, but Sung-jae Lee is mostly too bland and passive a character for us to really care what happens to him. We definitely dislike his bitch of a wife, mind you. He also wants to get promoted up to professor, which will involve bribing the dean. Korean academia isn't portrayed well in this film.
The secondary protagonist is a kind, pretty girl (Doona Bae) with an overweight flatmate who doesn't really care about anything. Doona Bae's upset about the disappearing dogs, especially since her job involves helping their grieving owners put up "Have You Seen This Dog" posters. The first one is a little girl. "If I don't find the dog, I'll starve myself to death. She's my life." The second one is an old lady who may have had no other friend in the world.
You've probably guessed that this film has a mean streak. However at the same time, it feels oddly directionless. The characters are just bumbling along with their lives, in the movie equivalent of Brownian motion. The cruelty doesn't have any point. We only see the little girl in that one scene where she says her dog was her life, after which she's done her job and duly disappears from the movie again. It's a feel-bad film, if you like. We're told that Sung-jae Lee has hurt people, but the film seems to regard this as an entirely neutral matter that's being brought to our attention but isn't otherwise important. Note also the prank call Doona Bae receives one night, which is a nasty little practical joke that goes nowhere and is again just cruelty for its own sake. As far as I can tell, the film's message is that life sucks and only good deeds will be punished.
I wouldn't have minded this so much if they'd been going somewhere with it. However it's not the characters who are cruel, but the movie. Sung-jae Lee's dog-killing is just a symptom of his pent-up frustration. He's not a bad person. You can get a lot of humour out of bastards being evil, but there's none of that here because it's just the movie pissing on people's heads from time to time.
Is it funny? No. It only occurred to me near the end that the film might have been meant as a comedy. It certainly doesn't have jokes, except on one or two occasions when the cruelty becomes pointed enough to become funny. I laughed at attempted skewerings, hangings, etc. of dogs, while the final fate of the radishes is good. I also liked the dog-eating janitor.
Don't worry too much about the dogs. Most of the film is dog-free. Instead we've got such non-delights as Sung-jae Lee's wife, who says things like, "Respect me from now on; I'm two years older than you." What the hell is that? There's also a rambling story told by the dog-eating janitor about Boiler Kim, which again means nothing to the rest of the film but is at least weird and mad enough to be entertaining. For the most part, though, it's just people doing random stuff in a story that takes forever to get anywhere. In fairness there's some kindness and forgiveness towards the end, but even then I didn't care about the bitch's supposedly heartwarming scene because it's only ended up this way because she was being a bitch in the first place. Nevertheless things like that did help me to enjoy the last half-hour. The characters' problems become a plot and the film acquires a clearer focus on what it's trying to say.
Overall, disappointing. It's offbeat and dry enough to be of some interest, but I can't say it's my idea of black comedy either. If you're thinking of getting into some Korean cinema, don't start here.