Around the turn of the millennium, an assortment of young Korean filmmakers began wowing international film festivals with offbeat genre films noteworthy for their expressive style and willingness to venture into taboo areas. In recent years, the Korean New Wave has become less preoccupied with violence and perversion for the sake of shock or comedy, as evidenced by the work of director Bong Joon-ho, whose films Memories Of Murder, The Host, and Mother have displayed more slickness and sophistication while dealing with serial killers, mutated monsters, and the mentally handicapped.
Still, Bong did rise from the same boundary-pushing generation as Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook, and Bong’s 2000 debut film, Barking Dogs Never Bite—now available on DVD as part of The Bong Joon-ho Collection, and also sold separately—is about as dark a comedy as that wave produced. Lee Sung-jae plays an out-of-work academic dealing with a pregnant wife, a lack of money, and a neighbor’s yapping dog. So Lee kills the dog—or at least tries to. A string of blunders and attempted cover-ups leads to Lee becoming a serial dog-torturer of sorts, pursued by the intrepid, soft-hearted Bae Dun-na, a young woman who hopes her compassion will get her noticed. Meanwhile, Bong breaks frequently for interludes and anecdotes that involve vomiting, skull-crushing, impaling, and a custodian who exploits the epidemic of canine misfortune to dust off his recipe for dog stew.
As staged by Bong, all this animal abuse and human viscera comes off as a lot cuter than it sounds. As with Bong’s later films, the sharp hook of Barking Dogs’ plot serves mainly to hold the audience’s attention while Bong explores the story’s peripheries, making observations about the communities where his characters dwell. Barking Dogs Never Bite is about the different levels of need in and around one apartment building, from the homeless and handicapped to the mildly inconvenienced. But there’s nothing didactic here; Bong deploys a sprightly, jazzy score, and alternates between scenes that approximate silent comedy and scenes that aim for Hitchcockian suspense. He moves from one setpiece to another: a lengthy, horrific monologue shot from a low angle; a chase scene that emphasizes the geometric lines of an apartment courtyard; a fantasy sequence where people gather on rooftops and shower Bae with confetti; and so on. Barking Dogs Never Bite is uneven, unnecessarily provocative, and exhausts its central premise long before the closing credits, but it’s invigorating to watch regardless. After all, Bong is just doing what New Wave artists do: experimenting, breaking rules, showing off.
Key features: An interview with Bae, a storyboard-to-film comparison, and a nine-minute compilation of the movie’s visual highlights.