Before Bong Joon-Ho came to the attention of Western audiences with Memories of Murder, The Host and most recently Mother, he had made Barking Dogs Never Bite — although for years the only way you could see it was through the Korean DVD import circuit or a region-free rental service. It’s finally been released domestically thanks to the good graces of Magnolia, and it’s a raucous, bitterly funny movie that makes it clear Bong’s cynicism and social commentary were with him from the git-go.
Dogs takes place in a sprawling apartment complex somewhere in urban South Korea, a place where you wind up knowing your neighbors without trying. One of the tenants is a young graduate student, Yun-ju (Sung-jae Lee) up for a shot at a professor’s title. He’s hemmed in from all sides: his wife is pregnant (she has a craving for walnuts that drives him to distraction); his senior expects to be bribed well to give the young man even a chance at a position; and there’s this annoying dog somewhere in the building that just won’t shut up. In a fit of pique, he grabs what he thinks is the dog, pens it up in an old bureau in the building’s basement … and then discovers not only did he snag the wrong pup, but the building’s janitor has gleefully seized on this opportunity to boil up some dog stew.
Contrasting all this is Hyeon-nam (Bae Doo-na, The Host and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), a young girl working in the building’s tenant’s association office. She spends most of her time looking for creative ways to blow off work with her friend who works in the toy shop across the street, but gets dragged into the middle of things when she mistakenly witnesses Yun-ju preparing to throw what he thinks (again) is the right dog off the roof. One crazy misunderstanding leads to another, and another, with everyone’s worst tendencies splayed out in the open for all to see. Bong has a great eye for how to film simple things in a striking way, so things that ought to be dry runs for most directors (e.g., the mad foot-chase through the apartment complex) look inventive.
The whole movie is very funny, of course, but like Bong’s other movies also put together with a certain eye for human behavior and fallibility. A Western version of this story would see the characters as conveniences by which we are moved from one gag to the next; here, it’s the other way around. The opening credits sternly inform us that no animals were harmed in the making of the film, but that just seems to mean the human beings don’t get off easy.