Thursday, September 16, 2010


It's hard to hit a home run your first time at bat

By Edward Copeland
As faithful readers know, I've been on a Bong Joon-ho kick of late after loving this year's Mother and greatly admiring his earlier work Memories of Murder. The one title still recommended for me to see was his 2000 feature debut Barking Dogs Never Bite, which never received a U.S. release outside of festivals until its DVD premiere this year. I believe there may be a reason for that: It's the first time Bong has disappointed me so far.

Admittedly, I'm a dog lover, but that hasn't stopped me from liking films that placed canines in jeopardy before (Amores Perros being one example), but the setup of Barking Dogs Never Bite just doesn't justify its main character's actions.

Lee Sung-jae plays Yun-ju, living in a large apartment complex with his demanding pregnant wife Eun-sil (Kim Ho-jeong) after finishing grad school and pining for a professorship he fears will never be his without a payoff to the right people. As the film opens, he's talking on the phone to a friend while a dog is barking in the background. Even the person on the other end of the conversation can hear it and Yun-ju complains about it.

Before long, Yun-ju spots a cute, little ragamuffin of a dog (a suspiciously quiet one) and steals it. After a few failed attempts to kill it, he locks it in a cabinet in the apartment building's basement.

On another side of the giant complex, a young girl named Hyun-nam (Bae Doo-na) works in the building's management office, but her boredom finds her spending less time there and more time with her friend Jang-mi (Go Soo-hee) at a convenience store and helping people work up flyers for the sudden rise in missing dogs. One little girl, whose dog was the one Yun-ju locked in the closet, seems particularly upset.

When the flyers go up, Yun-ju learns that the dog couldn't bark because of a throat problem. He returns to the basement, but it's too late: The dog has died and is about to become a meal for the building's janitor. Later, Yun-ju spots another dog and hears it barking. He grabs it from its elderly owner and hurls it from the roof an act witnessed by Hyun-nam and Jang-mi.

I consider myself a connoisseur of dark comedy, but the tone of Barking Dogs Never Bite doesn't work for it to succeed on that level. Part of the problem, at least for me, is that there's no explanation for Yun-ju's anti-dog jihad. Perhaps if we had a longer opening showing how the barking was truly driving him crazy. The film's resolution leaves a lot to be desired as well.

The film's best asset is Bae Doo-na's performance. She's delightful. The film, however, leaves a lot to be desired, and shows little evidence of what great things were to come in the future from Bong Joon-ho's directing career.

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That's a strange reason for not liking the movie. Yun-ju's inability to take the dog yapping is just a Mcguffin to get the story going. We don't need to understand why it drives him crazy. I actually found BARKING DOGS to be Bong's best movie after MEMORIES OF MURDER or at least tied with MOTHER. Every character turns out to be more than they seem at first, and Hyun-nam's experience with the homeless man is emblematic of how the characters come off. She sees malevolence, but he just wants a meal. The shrill wife turns out not to be so heartless after all. And Yun-ju, who's a whiny hard-to-like dog killer, eventually comes off sympathetic by the end. You are right though that Bae Doo-na gives an outstanding performance.
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