“No animals were harmed in the making of this film” is what we first see when Barking Dogs Never Bite begins. It is a pretty standard warning for many films, but never before has such a disclaimer been more appropriate and relieving. I have to say, I love it when films try to push the envelope (some push it too far, such as A Serbian Film), and Barking Dogs Never Bite is a truly extraordinary film, if only because it manages to be both charming and utterly disturbing. That is the mark of a truly brilliant film.
Considering what Bong Joon-Ho has achieved in his career so far, I wasn’t too surprised with Barking Dogs Never Bite. He redefined the action genre as a smart, apocalyptic horror in Snowpiercer, redefined the monster movie as a classy but terrifying affair in The Host and made serial murder endearing in Memories of Murder. However, his debut in Barking Dogs Never Bite is something extremely dark. It centres around an intellectual named Ko Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) who has a hatred for barking dogs so much that he will do anything to be rid of the nuisances in his apartment building…and I mean everything.
Of course, dog lovers will be absolutely disgusted. The images of dogs being thrown off roofs or locked in cupboards seems revolting, but the only consolation is of course that, as the disclaimer says, no animals were harmed, which allows one to move past the idea that this is just a blatant exploitation film and instead a very offbeat film about something people don’t think about. It treads a very thin line here, as there are stereotypes (and I don’t really need to tell you which one I am referring to here) and instead of completely disspelling them, Bong instead makes the bold statement of showing that it is a problem, but not in the way many people consider it to be. It can be quite disturbing to say the least, and while there is actually no on-screen cruelty (other than a brief scene at the beginning of the film, which seems more comical than horrifying), but the very idea is terrifying.
A film like this didn’t need to be made, but if it had to be, making it the darkest of comedies would certainly be the way to go. It functions as a satirical social commentary, but also as a broad comedy. The situations our lead character puts himself through are nothing short of hilarious, and the most tense moments are always ended with light humour, and if you discount the dog murders throughout, it is actually a hilarious film, and unlike many other films, which claim to be dark comedies, but are instead just very edgy dramas, this actually strives to be very funny. Bong was clearly was influenced by slapstick comedy, and he twists the classic tropes of physical comedy to suit this film perfectly. Get past the highly disturbing subject matter of this film, and you’ll find yourself laughing quite a bit…and its a strange feeling, because this film shouldn’t be funny at all, but it manages to be, which is a testament of Bong being a fantastic filmmaker. You can see how much he loves dark comedy in all of his films, especially the scenes with Mason in Snowpiercer, or many of the moments in Memories of Murder. However, Barking Dogs Never Bite is his first, and only, flat-out comedy…and that’s one of the strangest sentences I’ve ever had to write, because its very strange to consider this a comedy, but it most certainly is.
Dog murder aside, there is actually a very interesting story underneath this film. The entire reason why Ko kills dogs is because he is paranoid and insecure about his future, as he is a Humanities graduate who has a PhD but no job, and the only way to get a job is bribery. Money and wealth play a very important part of this film, and as a social commentary, this film takes an interesting stance towards this issue, and while the dog storyline is the main drive of the film, the most poignant moments come throughout, such as when Ko gives some of his bribery money to a poor woman on the train. Throughout all of his films, Bong makes some very stark statements towards society, the economy and politics, and while society is never the main driving force behind his films, it is an important element and this method of social commentary is why Bong Joon-ho is one of the most talented filmmakers working today.
However, I do have some criticisms. Our lead actor, Lee Sung-jae, is a bit too weak. He does have some very strong moments throughout the film, but with the exception of the brilliant third act, he doesn’t reach the highs his character possibly could. He is upstaged by the absolutely lovely Bae Doona, who plays Park, a young woman who works in the apartment building who becomes aware of the trend of dogs going missing. Much like Faye Wong in the brilliant Chungking Express, Bae is both innocent and tough, and is brilliant at playing the motivated young Park. The film, however, is stolen by Byun Hee-bong, who plays the gloriously evil but somehow simultaenously charming janitor who has no qualms in being a disgusting human being. It is such a wonderfully evil performance, and one that steals the entire film, even if his performance is a bit too limited. This film is Bong’s weakest ensemble effort, but the three main characters are all very solid, but it is more a story and directorial achievement rather than the acting showcase that was Memories of Murder.
I really did like Barking Dogs Never Bite, but it isn’t nearly as good as Snowpiercer, The Host or Memories of Murder, but on its own, it is a spectacularly original and audacious debut for a young director. It is a wonderfully quirky and twisted little dark comedy that is as sick and demented and wonderful as you could possibly imagine. Just another disclaimer – if you’re an animal lover, especially a dog lover like me, then you will be quite disturbed by this film, but its actually quite fascinating once it clicks that this isn’t real, even though it seems all too real at times. It does break the cardinal rule of filmmaking – never kill the dog – but someone had to, and I am glad it was done in such a twisted and funny way, because any other way would have just been sadistic. A wonderfully offbeat little dark comedy that I urge everyone to have a look at, because it is absolutely worth it, and perhaps it will allow Bong Joon-ho to get more acclaim and recognition, which he both needs and deserves.