Barking Dogs Never Bite
Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López
1. Thou Shalt Not Kill (a Dog) – Cristina’s essay for a 2014 Bong Joon-ho retrospective
Like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog (1988), Bong’s debut feature takes place in and around an apartment block whose population – dwellers and workers – form a network of characters, on the basis of which the entire narrative is woven. The conflicts that allow the Polish director to explore complex ethical dilemmas are not exactly absent from Barking Dogs Never Bite, but Bong transforms them into the raw material of a black comedy that does not shy away from sticky questions concerning poverty, corruption, laziness, economic stress, physical and psychological abuse, and the mistreatment of humans and animals (murder included).
The director’s imagination seems to recognise no limit, nurturing itself on diverse sources: the habits and customs that mark the behaviour of individuals and their close relations, whether familial or conjugal; urban legends, stories and clichés lodged in the popular imagination; the codes, formats and contents of the mass media in all its varieties …
In this sense, Barking Dogs is an unbiased film that shamelessly reformulates and appropriates for itself everything that can serve as inspiration, converting the most delicate, polemical and uncomfortable themes into ingredients for its irreverent, contagious humour. It begins with a notice informing us that no animal was harmed during filming; this contractual obligation is swiftly transformed by Bong into a macabre joke once we hear on the soundtrack the barking, each time less bearable, of a dog. Not a bad start for a film whose Korean title refers to a popular novel (Marie Louise de la Ramée’s 1872 A Dog of Flanders) concerning the tender friendship between a dog and a boy – but whose unfolding is built on a succession of disappeared dogs that are locked up, cooked and eaten by humans (in either tasty soups fastidiously prepared in the solitude of a basement, or fast barbecues improvised on a rooftop).
Bong is among those contemporary directors who knows
how to combine the potentialities of space, the shot and montage. He loves to
film colossal architectures (the central building) and tiny, cramped hovels (the
shop where Jang-mi [Go Soo-hee] works), both of which allow him to put in play
particular games and visual solutions.
In Barking Dogs,
the edges of the frame become zones where the unexpected creeps in: objects
appear or disappear at the top or bottom; actors enter in a stampede – or shoot
right out – at the sides; the gas of a fumigator emerges through a crack and
ends up blotting out the entire shot; and nocturnal runners interrupt the calm,
epiphanic re-living of a traumatic moment …
Like many of Bong’s creatures, Hyun-nam (Bae Doona) is obsessed with the mass media, and dreams of becoming someone who is featured and celebrated on television. The mystery of the lost dogs is turned into an incentive with which she can fight the boredom of her office job. For most of the story she is absorbed, agape, dreaming on her feet. Just look at the way she wields a mop or eats noodles to recognise the weariness that contrasts with those pure action moments that transform her into a heroic character on the same level as those who populate her fantasies (something that, typical of Bong, is simply planted from the film’s very first moments, in order to be later picked up and elaborated in a more effective and ingenious manner).
Yun-ju, for his part, is shy and depressive, overwhelmed by stress, accepting of the desperation and pessimism inscribed in his footsteps. Across the narrative, he will be trapped in a series of doggy situations (killing a dog, seeing how a dog is cooked, walking a dog … ) that make him very uncomfortable.
The vitality of both characters is manifest thanks to the extraordinary gestural work of Lee and Bae. These gestures – that Bong strongly emphasises via slow motion and extreme close-up – are, once again, transformed into infectiously comic material, equalled only by the expressions of the animals who appear in the film. That’s because the dogs function as something like the return of the repressed. If there’s anything that this hero learns from his journey, it’s that no matter from what height a dog is thrown to its death, and no matter what depth it’s buried at, the dog will always return, taking a form each time more sinister – just to remind him how miserable his life really is.
(translation from Spanish: AM)
2. Every Which Way (but Loose) – Adrian’s contribution to a 2021 dossier on “The Greatest Scenes of 21st Century Korean Cinema”
A burlesque chase sequence that culminates in a sublime slow-motion shot: Bong Joon-ho achieves this not once but twice in Barking Dogs Never Bite – a satirical black comedy that still has the power to enrage and scandalise some viewers. I will treat these two chases (the first 50 minutes in, the second at 88 minutes) as one, because they are so closely interrelated as mirrored scenes.
A drab apartment block of the modern world: every
dwelling, every level, every elevator, even very stairwell is identical – in
shape, size, architectural design, pale yellow and cream colour scheme. Barking Dogs is an orgy of seriality, set among a seeming infinity
of such identical buildings, as far as the eye can see. Bong exploits and
animates this serial feature in every way he can: by cutting further and
further out to show the numbing repetition of visual sameness; by using a
telephoto lens to flatten the perspective and emphasise the rigid geometric
planes; and by deliberately confusing us spatially: since everything looks
identical, how can we ever really know where we are?
Both chases are frantic affairs. They build in pace and intensity until Bong produces – like a magician with his bag of tricks – one of his favourite devices: slow motion. The rate of slowness is itself highly varied: sometimes just a brief gesture, at other times excruciatingly stretched-out. Whenever and however slow motion appears, it makes the action more agonising – and much funnier. And Bong’s way of alternating shots at slow and normal speeds is constantly inventive and surprising.
The musical score by Jo Seong-woo for the first chase is comprised of percussion, piano and orchestral jabs. For the second chase, it’s a more steadily rhythmic jazz combo playing to a busy samba beat – but periodically starting and stopping with the different stages of the event. “Comical music” is hard to create successfully in cinema, but Bong and his collaborators find some wonderful solutions.
At the end of the first chase, a door suddenly opens
and Hyun-nam slams into it. It’s time for the absurdly graceful slow motion
cap-off: Hyun-nam falling backwards, her arms rising into the air – seen twice,
from two successively more distant angles. To double the crazy poetry of the
moment, Bong cuts in the sight and sound of an airplane passing in the sky!
© Cristina Álvarez López September 2014 / Adrian Martin May 2021