Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Starring Lee Seong-jae, Bae Doona, and Go Soo-hee.
“No animals were harmed in the making of this film,” reads the disclaimer at the start of Barking Dogs Never Bite, the feature directorial debut of Bong Joon-ho. Let’s hope that’s true because there are some cringe-worthy sights throughout this dark comedy, especially for canine lovers. It all begins when Yun-ju (Lee Seong-jae), an out of work graduate student, is irked by the yapping of a dog somewhere in the enormous apartment complex he lives with his pregnant wife. Depressed and perhaps succumbing to neuroses, Yun-ju captures the mutt and locks it inside an abandoned basement closet. This leads to an unfortunate chain of events - all involving dogs in some way - that will only erode his already fragile self-confidence.
Reminiscent of William H. Macy’s character in Fargo (1996), Yun-ju is neither hero nor anti-hero; that the camera captures him in the midst of action seems almost accidental. He’s a feeble character who seeks to rise from his present state but makes profoundly poor choices that only reveal how ill-equipped he is dealing with the consequences. The vain attempts to cover up mistakes, meanwhile, lead each protagonist to be stalked by a justice figure. In Fargo, it’s sheriff Marge Gunderson; in Barking Dogs, we have the equally compelling Park Hyun-nam (Bae Doona). Hyun-nam is a bookkeeper in the same apartment complex, a young woman whose acts of kindness are partially motivated by fame and recognition, an inducement that’s played for laughs throughout the film.
And really, Barking Dogs is nothing if not funny. Anyone who’s seen Memories of Murder (2003) or The Host (2006) knows director Bong is capable of finding humor in the most inopportune places. He’s aided here by Bae Doona, who demonstrates a deftness at physical comedy - her looks of bewilderment mixed with a complete lack of vanity are absolutely arresting on screen. At one point Bong stages a hilarious foot chase between Yun-ju and Hyun-nam set against the bland but hypnotically geometric design of the apartment complex; the lack of grace in both participants exposes the absurdity of even trying to make such a sequence thrilling. Another highlight is Hyun-nam’s friendship with Jang-mi (played by Go Soo-hee), a store clerk on the building’s ground floor. Whether it’s getting blissfully drunk in Jang-mi’s cramped shop or delivering a running kick to a car’s side mirror, Bong subtly delivers one of cinema’s most playful and endearing female friendships.
The ending falls a bit flat, but Barking Dogs Never Bite is nonetheless an engaging film working up to its resolution. Even in such a pedestrian environment Bong’s skill with shot composition, fostering tension, and injecting a wicked sense of humor elevates the material in a way most directors simply aren’t capable of. As the scope - not to mention the budget - of his films grow larger and larger, Barking Dogs is solid evidence Bong Joon-ho can be just as adept with small scale, minimalist fare.