Even in the company of Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon, it’s fair to say that Bong Joon-ho is the best director Korean cinema has produced in the last twenty years (a key difference between Bong and the other two is that while Park and Kim are essentially stylists, Bong combines storytelling and social commentary with his underrated but undeniable aesthetics). In fact, it wouldn’t be too impertinent to suggest that with just four films Bong has staked his claim to being the country’s greatest of all time, such are the power, excitement, invention and lasting impression of his works.
‘Memories of Murder (2003)’ is probably his most accomplished movie: confident, poised, with immaculate pacing and moments of remarkable atmosphere, it also showcases his trademark mixture of suspense and comedy the best. Structuring itself as a sinuous murder mystery that increasingly revealed a dark lament at a semi-totalitarian Eighties Korea, ‘Memories’ worked a beautifully subtle criticism of the country’s military dictatorship and its cultural and technological backwardness into the bargain. ‘The Host (2006)’ similarly began as a monster movie which, sadly with much less ambiguity, turned into a polemic against US military presence on the peninsula and the notion of public control. It did, however, have one of the best opening 20-minute salvo of any movie you can think of, which really saved it from being a greater disappointment (not that it stopped a substantial portion of the public from grumbling).
‘Barking Dogs Never Bite’ is Bong’s debut feature, and in many ways he has yet to better it. It is by turns hilariously funny and quite poignant, tragic and even a little scary, a prosaic and affectionate look at urban life in modern Korea which also retains, er, biting critique of its less savoury aspects. Lee Sung-jae, an actor who back then was a lithe everyman with an easygoing style, especially charming in ‘Art Museum by the Zoo (1998)’ before becoming a muscle-bound action star (and suffering a precipitous fall in popularity), is terrific as Yun-ju, a frustrated researcher looking to find the bribe necessary to gain a university professorship. Being an unemployed husband to a breadwinning wife who works as a bank clerk, Yun-ju’s existence is baleful to his ego and self-worth, and symbolic of the dilemma faced by the middle-class Korean male: over-educated and intellectually proud, patriarchical but pampered, Yun-ju is forced to compromise his academic integrity, not to mention personal ethics, to once again support his family and regain the social status he thinks his background deserves. Both victim and perpetrator, Yun-ju is increasingly driven to distraction by the incessant barking of a dog in his apartment complex, and eventually resorts to an extreme act which will cause any card-carrying member of the RSPCA to recoil in horror.
Bae Doo-na, playing another resident of the apartment block named Hyun-nam who witnesses Yun-ju’s act and embarks on a quest to track him down, is at her low-key best: with puffy eyes and swollen cheeks lending her a look of perpetual sleepiness, with finely unpretentious mannerisms and studied ordinariness, in Bae’s performance there’s not a glimmer of cinematic glamour which usually cannot help but find its way to female leads in Korean movies. She is another microcosm of Korea’s social issues: a bright young woman living in a society which neglects to provide adequate opportunities to members of her sex and age-group, Hyun-nam is bored, uncertain and lacks direction in life because of the male-centric world around her.
Bong indeed has a lot of things to say about life in Korea: how women are actively discouraged from pursuing long careers, especially after marriage as Yun-ju’s wife finds out; how corruption isn’t an option, but a necessity if you want to stay in the hamster wheel of life; how the millions of people living in cage-like apartment complexes are effectively alienated from each other living 7 feet away. There was also minor controversy at the handling of dogs in a couple of scenes – and one is rather uncomfortable – and in a country famed throughout the world for its culinary use of our canine friends they stuck out like a sore thumb, but ‘Barking Dogs’ firmly condemns animal cruelty; it just does it in a typically indirect way.
It doesn’t mean to say that ‘Barking Dogs’ is all social commentary and no fun. Far from it: it’s full of whimsical scenes and performances: Byun Hee-bong, a Bong veteran, is fantastically sinister as the apartment security guard, telling macabre urban legends to a transfixed and increasingly uncomfortable patron in the basement of the building in what is a show-stealing scene; Yun-ju and his wife, played by Kim Ho-jung, are the emotional core of the film, and in the part where the former proves the distance of the street they walk to the grocers by rolling a 100m toilet roll down it, we are moved both by the spark of genius in the gesture, and the latter’s visible renewal of faith in Yun-ju’s talent.
Ultimately this is a story of ordinary people living in ordinary environments, faced with unusual but unsensational problems that they attempt to solve realistically and within their means. There aren’t many films that do that here: anything that involves the lower/middle class resorts to using violent murders, grubby sex or low-brow comedy, happy to perpetuate the lazy stereotype that people of that category are incapable of reason or civility. Even Bong has moved on to some of these motifs to better commercial reception. But “Barking Dogs’ is filmed with great wit, playfulness and verve, and never bogs itself down in attempting to tell a morality tale or play the character judge. There’s even some improbable thriller here too, and it’s really saying something of the movie’s quirky strength that a finale which features the heroine escaping the clutches of a shuffling, malnourished hobo is made to feel as suspenseful as a Hitchcock climax.
The late nineties were an era in which Korean movies started to really find their feet, and gentle, thoughtful dramas and romantic comedies like ‘Barking Dogs’ especially flourished. Some of the best examples of the genre, and just best Korean films full stop, came from a three-year period running up to the new millennium: ‘Christmas in August (1998)’, ‘Bungee Jumping of Their Own (2000)’, the abovementioned ‘Art Museum’, ‘I Wish I Had a Wife (2000)’, and ‘One Fine Spring Day (2001)’, to mention a few, accompanied Bong’s debut. Korean cinema hasn’t really matched this output since, and perhaps the main reason is the rise of the local blockbuster. In 2003 the three-headed hydra of ‘Oldboy’, ‘Silmido’ and Bong’s own ‘Memories of Murder’ were released to tremendous reception, followed by ‘Taegukgi’ the next year which broke the all-time Korean box office record. These were fine films (except ‘Silmido’) and swept before all in ticket sales, but were all louder, more crass and less intimate than what came before, and effectively heralded a new era: all major investors/distributors suddenly developed a penchant for based-on-true-story epics, war movies and ultra-violent revenge thrillers. The kind of film-making that ‘Barking Dogs’ represented no longer holds sway (even in its creator), which is a painful shame because increasingly artistic merit is being overlooked in favour of the next massive spectacle. Will we ever see its like again? What is certain is that a film as loveable, smart and well-told, with a hard edge that delivers a lingering punch as ‘Barking Dogs’, is a rare treat indeed.