Barking Dogs Never Bite

(, aka Dog of Flanders and A Higher Animal, Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2000)


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.



Bong grasps the fact that cinematic space is neither fixed nor objective; rather, it constantly transforms itself on the basis of tiny alterations. The change in angle from one shot to the next – for instance, when Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae)q chases the first dog along the passageways – or the slow zolly used in the toilet scene are just two examples of the director’s skill in integrating space into action, experimenting with its metamorphosis and the mutations that can be provoked during the unfolding of any scene.


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 …



Another of Bong’s favourite strategies consists of dynamising the relations between the foreground and background of an image. There numerous examples of this from scene to scene, but three especially brilliant sequences: the moment that Yun-ju tries to hang the first dog; the scene (shot in a mirror) where the protagonist hides himself in a wardrobe while the concierge sits on a bucket; and the entire section devoted to the capture of the second dog.



Most of the gags invented by Bong begin from a spatial idea, are materialised in the use that the shots make of the space, and are capped off in sharp editing decisions. In the fantastic pursuit scene that takes place in the middle of the film, Bong follows his characters right up close, alongside them as they race up and down stairs, turning tight corners. The camera work has the precision of a Formula 1 racing driver, and the actors’ gestures seem to parody those of marathon runners: the combination is extraordinarily comical.



However, in the middle of this frantic chase (its rhythm marked by the jazz music that plays oddly on the soundtrack), Bong decides to introduce, in a totally unexpected way, three consecutive frontal shots of the apartment complex: in the first, we see only a portion of the level on which the chase is occurring; the second offers us a fuller view of various levels of the building; and the third is a general vista of this atrocious cement monster in which the characters move as if they were figures in a video game, insignificant creatures caught in an inhuman prison. Bong’s gags are special: they multiply the laughs, but also the drama, tension and anguish of crucial moments.



In Snowpiercer (2013), the train on which the entire action takes place is not only a physical space but also a metaphor for a particular view of the world: a factory where the poor are exploited, a machine that functions by sucking the energy of the lowliest, a structure that requires everybody to stay in their corresponding compartment (wagon, class or social category) so that the train can keep going. This imagining of life as a straight line (which in Snowpiercer is condensed, sublimely, in the figure of the unstoppable train) appears already, in a more dispersed form, in Barking Dogs: long corridors that seem endless, reflections in the metro that conjure signs that point to nothing and roads that lead nowhere, rows of fluorescent lights that cross the screen diagonally or recede into the background of shots …



… and, in a more general and abstract way, a multitude of motifs associated with narrative or spatial seriality (dogs and their successive owners, appearances and disappearances, bathrooms and housing-cubicles, yellow raincoats, official notices and photocopied leaflets bearing headshots of puppies … ).



In Bong’s hands, even something as banal as a roll of toilet paper is able to be converted into a symbol – at once both dramatic and comic – of this grey, boring, predictable lifestyle, without imminent prospect of change for anybody.



The central characters of Barking Dogs are awkward, sweet and quintessentially Bongian: their lives don’t match their dreams, and neither do their personalities match their aspirations.


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?



Harrassed everyman Yun-ju is always trying to get rid of noisy dogs – by killing them. And Hyun-nam is always trying to save those dogs – and even ends up returning one to Yun-ju. What initiates the first chase is Hyun-nam seeing, by chance through binoculars, Yun-ju throwing a dog off a roof. In the second chase, Hyun-nam rescues a dog from a menacing vagrant who is happy to eat canine meat.


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!



The key to Bong’s style: always have more than one thing happening. Two viewpoints, two directions, two concerns: there’s always a split, a cleaving in the scene that produces extraordinary effects. In the first chase, there are two falling objects: the dog and a pair of binoculars. Hyun-nam cares for only for the animal and pursues its apparent killer; while her friend, Jang-mi, cares only for the binoculars. As they both reach the ground floor running, suddenly Jang-mi veers – literally leaps – out of the frame to go somewhere else. It’s the type of idiosyncratic jolt that Bong loves to include.



But the greatest shot of all is yet to come, concluding the second chase. At one point, as Hyun-nam runs desperately from the vagrant up, down and all around the levels of the apartment, she yells into the void for Jang-mi’s help. Then Jang-mi becomes part of the scene, too. It all ends with another slow motion panorama: passing from a horrified Yun-ju looking screen-left, passing by happy Hyun-nam who beams at and pats the rescued dog, and ending on Jang-mi who looks screen-right and down below onto the pavement.



Life flies in all directions – literally so – in the cinema of Bong Joon-ho.

MORE Bong Joon-ho: The Host, Mother

© Cristina Álvarez López September 2014 / Adrian Martin May 2021

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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