by Jay Seaver
Bong Joon-ho's new film, "Mother", is dead serious from about fifteen minutes in, and I don't recall much levity in "Memories of Murder". On the other hand, "The Host" was memorable for just how funny it was for a non-parody monster movie, so it's not much of a surprise that Bong's first feature was a comedy - or that its sense of humor is fairly twisted.As the film opens, graduate student Yoon-ju (Lee Seong-jae) is on the phone to a colleague, worrying about his chances at the professorship that has just opened up; being considered seems to involve a great deal of late-night drinking with the department head (and maybe bribery). His pregnant wife Eun-sil (Kim Ho-jeong) has either reached the point of making constant demands, or was like that all along. And though the apartment doesn't allow them, some tiny dog just won't stop yapping. On the other side of the building, Hyun-nam (Bae Doo-na), a young girl working in the building's management office, is bored with her job, preferring to hang out with her friend Jang-mi (Go Soo-hee) at the convenience store - or help put up signs about lost dogs.
"Rule of thumb: If a dog's wearing a leash, it's a pet. Don't eat it."
The movie opens with the disclaimer that no animals were harmed in the making of this film, and when you see that, you know some animals are going to get harmed on-screen. Given that this film is from South Korea, and dogs are mentioned in the title... Well, there's a certain segment of the audience that won't be able to watch it, no matter how little problem they may have with the painful slapstick and black comedy inflicted upon the film's two-legged cast. I don't say that to condemn Korea or dog-lovers, just to acknowledge that there's stuff in this movie that will be a deal-breaker for some people, and they probably shouldn't watch it, because they won't be able to focus on anything else.
Such as, for instance, the effortless way Bong depicts the crowded city and how it squeezes the life out of its residents. Much of the action takes place in and around a giant, brutalist apartment block, a giant slab built next to an idyllic green mountain that seems both near and unreachable when looking out Yoon-ju's and Hyun-nam's windows; in other shots, the building seems to blot the mountain out. Hyun-nam is terribly bored at her job, the the shop Jang-mi works in barely has the space to qualify as a closet. Yoon-ju and Eun-sil betray little excitement at their impending parenthood, and in the basement, a homeless man disappears under a pile of discarded clothes.
Kind of grim, but also darkly funny. The world at times seems to conspire against Yoon-ju in particular, although he's not alone in that predicament - consider the janitor who just wants to make a dog stew and eat it in peace. Things get stranger and more arbitrary as the film goes on, but the humor often comes not just from how the world can crap on people, but from how that person who is making your life miserable can also do something unexpectedly kind. There's also some broad slapstick (always, always, always look where you're going when running!) to go with the absurd situations.
This kind of comedy tends to need a very specific sort of performance from the star, and Lee Seong-jae hits it perfectly. He plays Yoon-ju as, by and large, a reasonable-seeming man, but there's also just enough laziness and petulance to him that the strange situations he finds him in don't exactly seem unfair - even if we don't see his particular offenses against Eun-sil or the world in general within the film, there's little doubt that they exist. Bae Doo-na, meanwhile, does a good job of capturing Hyun-nam's inexperience and naivete without making her seem starry-eyed; she's a little disgruntled without being cynical; there's still some dreamer to her. Kim Ho-jeong dances on the line between being harsh in a funny way and shrewish for most of the film, so that her final scenes are in-character but surprisingly sympathetic.
Though Barking Dogs Never Bite isn't the sort of twisted genre film Bong would go on to make his international reputation on, fans will find familiar things other than Bae Doo-na (who later played the aunt in The Host). The sense of menace, for instance, or the striking visuals. Two stand out in particular: Hyun-nam chases Yoon-ju across the building's outer walkways in a shot that is both exciting and reinforces how monolithic the apartment block is by its zooming out, and a cloud of gas appearing almost out of nowhere to envelop Yoon-ju, a surreal moment that makes the audience laugh not just for how funny it is, but for what it could be setting up."Barking Dogs" is different from Bong's later films, but it's funny and well-enough to be much more than a curiosity or footnote. It's an impressive debut, and hopefully one that will become better-known with the success of what he has done since.
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originally posted: 03/10/10 16:18:08