Barking dogs Never Bite
"No animals were harmed during the making of this film" is the disclaimer that appears in big, bold lettering at the beginning of Korean director Bong Joon-Ho's darkly funny 2000 debut. True enough, no doubt, but sure to offer little comfort to committed dog lovers, few of which will likely make it to the credits of this sardonic tale of one timid fellow's misplaced rage directed at the tiny canines in his apartment building, whose constant barking is slowly driving him potty, and his efforts to round them up and, er, 'dispose' of them.
Set in and around a rundown concrete dwelling in downtown Seoul, Joon-Ho (who would later make some waves with The Host) paints a bleak portrait of urban alienation characterized by a litany of listless Generation Y drop-outs and their respective unfulfilled lives. Chronically unable to assert himself, post-grad and part-time lecturer Yun-Ju (Lee sung-Jae) wants to become a college professor but can't afford the customary bribe required to open doors to an otherwise closed establishment. A bullied doormat to his pregnant wife, resentful that he's such a shrinking violet, he acts out against the many tiny dogs, who have the run of the block, and now serve as something of a status symbol for the upwardly mobile in the new millennium.
Elsewhere, a ditzy wallflower girl from the neighborhood, Hyeon-Nam (Bae Doo-na) and her acerbic best friend find themselves inspired by a sensationalist local news story about a woman teller beating up a would-be bank robber. Supplemented by a few other unnecessary subplots that orbit the dreary apartment block, they together form a composite of a generation painfully aware that, for the first time in hundreds of years, they will be worse off than the one that came before them. Sure, they might not die of smallpox, but they still face what is essentially a rigged game in the face of a massive gap in both wealth and opportunity, where chance, cheating, and celebrity are they only way to actively get ahead.
Utilizing the uniform conformity of the design with it's many duplicate layers and it's labyrinthine passages to great effect, Joon-Ho ably illustrates the disconnect between the many denizens. The bruhaha of the block over the missing mutts is contrasted with the gleeful antics of the superintendent – himself terrorized by an unseen homeless man he believes to be a haunting – who is only too happy about the steady stream of dead dogs because it means he has something for his cooking pot.
As distasteful as it sounds on paper, Joon-Ho's presentation is expertly handled, replete with more than a few can't-quite-believe-he-went-there moments. But despite his success with the blackly comic material, Joon-Ho never quite commits to the idea wholeheartedly. Instead, meandering back-and-forth between supplementary ideas – chiefly a suggestion of potential romance between Hyeon-Nam and Yun-Ju, perhaps as a bone to those viewers who are not quite as pessimistic about things as he seems to be. In the end it's not quite a full on black comedy, and not quite a romantic comedy either, landing somewhere between the two when you get the feeling that picking one or the other exclusively might have served the movie better.
DVD Special Features:
A selection of storyboards, and a brief but insightful interview with leading lady Bae Doo-na.
Starring: Lee Sung-Jae, Bae Doo-na, Derek Son Tae Woong
Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Runtime: 110 Minutes