Ever since I fell in love with Bong Joon-ho‘s Memories of Murder, I knew I had to get hold of his first movie, Barking Dogs Never Bite (a.k.a. A Higher Animal or Dog of Flanders, 2000). I looked specifically for it when I was strolling in touristy Myeongdong on my first visit to Seoul and found it easily in the second DVD store I hopped into. Joy!
(By the way, “barking dogs never bite” is commonly understood as an idiom about people who issue threats all the time but don’t make good on their word. You know, the ones who yell a lot but it’s all din and no damage. Speaking of din, my dogs bark at the mailman the moment they smell him coming a block away, but I can vouch for them never ever biting him. That doesn’t make the man like the pooches any better, alas.)
Written and directed by him, Bong Joon-ho’s debut work has been seen by a lot fewer people than his later two movies (The Host is still king in Korea in terms of tickets sold), but that doesn’t mean it’s any less well-made or entertaining. Barking Dogs Never Bite ranks up there with the likes of The Quiet Family, Guns and Talks and My Scary Girl, all of them my favorite comedies because of their blend of dark and quirky humor. All certain to elicit gasps, chortles, and even some knee-slapping.
Ko Yoon-ju (Lee Sung-jae) is a hen-pecked husband with big dreams and no means to achieve them. Spending his days mostly worrying about how he can cobble together ten million won (apparently that’s the minimum going rate if one wants a successful shot at bribing a university dean into hiring you as professor), his nerves are on edge. It doesn’t help that he’s bitter (“I thought all I had to do was study hard”) and broke (the balance in his bank account is a depressing hundred thousand won, about 100 US dollars). His heavily pregnant wife, Eun-sil, compounds his misery by constantly barking orders at him or issuing reminders that she’s the one bringing home the bacon.
One afternoon, as Yoon-ju is standing at his balcony in the nondescript apartment that he shares with his wife, he hears a dog yapping away. The barking is exceptionally shrill, as if the dog is standing right next to him. Dogs aren’t allowed in the apartment complex, which comprises several blocks all at least twenty storeys tall, and a riled-up Yoon-ju stomps out of the house in search of the dog.
The scenes that follow may be disturbing to dog lovers (I was definitely alarmed), but we are assured at the start that “No dogs were harmed in the making of this movie” so I suppose we just have to believe that the three dogs in the non-human cast had a jolly good time on the set. (No dog in the world, however, asks to be dangled over the edge of a rooftop with ground zero at least two hundred feet below.)
Operation Throw Pesky Dog Over Rooftop fails and Yoon-ju decides instead to lock the poor pup in a cupboard in the dingy basement of the block. Perhaps he thinks Slow Death by Oxygen Deprivation is a more humane way of committing dog homicide. He then trots upstairs happily, thus making dog lovers love him as much as they love soaking in swill.
Park Hyun-nam (Bae Doo-na) is officially a bookkeeper in the office that manages the apartment complex, but her duties range from sweeping the floor to stamping fliers. Lowest-ranked employee, in other words. A child walks in one day with a stack of fliers to be stamped so that they can be displayed in the complex. Seeing the “Have you seen my dog?” flier and the child’s despondent face, kindly Hyun-nam’s sympathies immediately surge to the fore.
(May I pause here to gush? I absolutely love Bae Doo-na in this role. With not a touch of make-up, she just glows. And why not? All that running must surely bring a flush to her face, but it’s not just the physical exertion but the fact that she owns the role, hands down. Give me Bae Doo-na any day over immaculately coiffed and made-up actresses who can’t act to save their lives.)
Meanwhile, up in his apartment, Yoon-ju is startled to hear a dog barking. It sounds exactly like the barking of the first dog, but that can’t be, can it? Hadn’t he gotten rid of his object of irritation? He rushes downstairs, sees an old lady with her small dog, and is stunned that the barking that had irked him so much is coming from this dog. He then sees the “Missing Dog” fliers and from the dog’s description learns that the dog he had dognapped earlier is a mute, it can’t bark!
Showing that he at least has some conscience, Yoon-ju goes back to the basement where he had left Dog No. 1. To his surprise the dog is no longer in the cupboard but on a chopping board. The block janitor (who knew he moonlighted as a butcher?) is happily preparing a feast of boshintang (dog stew). Yoon-ju watches, from inside the cupboard, as the janitor (Byun Hee-bong) sharpens his knife. First cut is made (away from the camera, of course), but before the knife can complete its task, another janitor walks in.
What ensues is an utterly hysterical scene where, in order to scare his colleague away so that he can continue carving, the first janitor cooks up a tall tale about a certain Boiler Kim. Byun Hee-bong is priceless in this scene, holding his colleague, the hidden Yoon-ju, and all of us viewers spellbound as he weaves the legend of Kim who “fixed boilers with love and care.”
His hair already standing on end after hearing the story of Boiler Kim, Yoon-ju creeps out of the cupboard only to be met by a sight that has him almost crapping his pants. His wife is also furious at him for being gone from home for more than ten minutes, a fight breaks out in which some glass gets shattered, and Yoon-ju’s blood pressure is about to reach dangerous limits. To cut a long story short, a second dog gets to experience bungee jumping except this time it’s not a trial run but the real thing. (The scene is horrifying, to say the least, so be prepared.)
This time the entire scene is witnessed by Hyun-nam who is on the rooftop of the opposite block just chilling out with her good friend. Hyun-nam races to the other block to catch the killer. Our girl can run, but Yoon-ju can run faster. Throughout the chase (both heart-pounding and comical) she does not see his face, just his back. No thanks to a door (love all the unexpected twists that make us gasp and guffaw), Hyun-nam is stopped dead in her tracks and Yoon-ju slips away.
The dog’s owner, the old lady, comes to Hyun-nam’s office to report the loss of her dog. In her well-meaning way (our girl is innately sweet and kind, if not slightly naive) Hyun-nam leads the old lady to the dog’s body. Imagine the reaction of any dog owner when faced with a beloved dog that just yesterday was very much alive but is now as dead as the leaves on the ground. Now imagine the owner is an elderly woman who lives alone with the dog that she calls “child.” It’s enough to make you want to hurl Yoon-ju off the rooftop yourself.
I’ll stop here with the story because I hope you’ll watch the movie to know how it ends.
Just like Memories of Murder and The Host, Barking Dogs Never Bite mixes elements of tragedy and comedy. But whereas the other two are easier to categorize, our little gem does not fall neatly into any one genre. Its humor is sharp and biting, its themes sobering and unsentimental.
Interpersed throughout the movie are telltale signs of poverty and deep concerns about making ends meet. A dog is coveted as a free meal, a runaway pear is not to be scorned at but chased after as food. Who knew you had to grease some palms to get employed in academia? It’s enough to make you think twice about that dissertation you’re slaving over. (Ivory tower crumbling, run!) If this is meant to be social satire, it’s pretty damning. Do you have to sell your integrity and live the rest of your life in fear (of being caught for bribery) just to secure a job that is on the surface noble and respected? And what if you get dismissed later, like two of our characters in the movie, in a most summary way, for the most unfair of reasons?
Let’s talk about stereotypes, too. Yoon-ju that dog-killer and scumbag. Then you realize how sorry and meaningless his life is, his illusions of hard work shattered. Where is self-respect if you cower in front of your wife and grovel before a prospective boss? How about our lovable Hyun-nam, who lives a day-to-day existence with nothing much to look forward to? A spot on television is something to be hoped for, enough to make her vulnerable to “Guess who wants you on telly now?” pranks. But still she shoulders on, our plucky girl, lending the movie a sense of hope that perhaps brighter days are around the corner.
So Barking Dogs Never Bite is not about dogs per se. The dogs in the movie don’t bite (and they don’t always bark, too); on the contrary they are portrayed as harmless creatures totally at the mercy of humans. But don’t judge the humans because appearances are deceptive. A sought-after position brings no joy, a lost position is not necessarily reason for gloom. A rash deed can lead to life-long regret (It’s not just a dog, you idiot!), a kind act invites unexpected returns that have no meaning save for the thoughtfulness of the giver (and you do not know whether to laugh or cry at that which is bestowed).
Life’s lessons through laughter. Thank you, Bong Joon-ho.