Barking Dogs Never Bite is the first feature by Korean director Bong Joon-ho who went on to helm movies like The Host, Mother, and Memories of Murder. Released in 2000, and available in various formats, it’s finally getting a Region 1 DVD release. While Barking Dogs Never Bite shows glimpses of the potential that was ultimately realized in movies like The Host, which is the best giant monster movie in a decade, but overall, it’s a disappointment.
Yoon-ju (Lee Sun-Jae) is an unemployed grad student with a pregnant wife who bosses him around and generally tramples all over him. He doesn’t want to be a professor, but given the path of his studies, that’s his only viable option. The problem is that to get the job he has to bribe the dean with $10,000 he doesn’t have.
Somewhere, lost in the middle of his gargantuan apartment complex, is the omnipresent, disembodied barking of a yappy little dog that drives Yoon-ju out of his mind. When he stumbles across an unattended Shih Tzu, he assumes he’s found the culprit. He tries to throw the dog off of the roof, but stops himself. He tries to hang it, but again, he is unable to go through with the act. Finally he locks the shaggy little beast (which has pig tails) in a cabinet in the basement storage area and leaves it to die. It’s seemingly the only way that he can affect any sort of change over his life, and exert any influence on the world around him.
Hyun-nam (Bae Doo-na), Air Doll, The Host, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) works at the bookkeeper for the maintenance department in Yoon-ju’s building. She is kind and timid, and mind bogglingly stupid, like can’t-figure-out-which-end-of-the-binoculars-to-look-through stupid. She is well meaning and dreams of something grander, of emulating her idol, a bank clerk who got on the news by foiling a robbery. In her mind, this sort of fame will be the answer to all of her prayers. When a first grader shows up with fliers about her missing dog, Hyun-nam is glad to pitch in.
Yoon-ju sees one of the fliers, which states that the dog cannot bark because of an operation, and realizes he made a horrible mistake. Too bad the dog is dead. When he catches another small dog, the one that has actually been barking the entire time, Hyun-nam witnesses him toss it off the roof from a distance. Though she chases the culprit, she is unable to capture or identify him, and knocks herself out on an open door, instead.
There are a number of large problems with Barking Dogs Never Bite, and chief among them is the characters. Neither of the protagonists are engaging or compelling in any capacity. Yoon-ju is so whiney and annoying that he evokes only anger instead of sympathy. He’s so passive and unwilling to stand up for himself that you can’t even care about his existential crisis. He hates his life, hates his career path, and hates his wife, but refuses to do anything to change his situation. The only way he ever acts is by killing dogs, which is hardly endearing, and he is a complete turd to everyone that attempts to help or be nice to him. He not only kills the dogs, but he inadvertently causes an old woman’s death and gets someone fired, too.
Hyun-nam isn’t much better. She means well, and is at least a pleasant human being but, like Yoon-ju, she steadfastly refuses to attempt to change the life that she hates. She is so frustratingly inept at life that you feel more sympathy for her friend who has to put up with her than you do for her. After a while you simply can’t invest any more in her because it is so maddening you’re practically pulling out your own hair.
The janitor who eats the dead dogs is the most interesting person in the movie, and to be honest, he isn’t all that interesting, either. Yoon-ju’s wife is bossy and mean, but as the movie goes on you begin to understand where she’s coming from. You’re frustrated with her husband and you’ve only known him for an hour or so, she’s having his baby and has to put up with him every single day. He thinks she is just a controlling bitch, but as it turns out, she is concerned for him, and does something incredibly sweet, and unsolicited, to prove it.
Both Yoon-ju and Hyun-nam finally do come to realizations about their lives, and ultimately do change, but that doesn’t happen until more than 80-minutes into the movie. By then it’s too little, too late, and you just don’t care. It doesn’t help that the discovery moments are completely unearned. There’s no character arc, here. It’s a flat line all the way through the film until something so blatant happens and with all the subtlety of a car bomb. Finally, they are forced to truly see things as they are for the first time.
Granted, the last 20- or 25-minutes of Barking Dogs Never Bite is by far the best part of the film. The characters finally become somewhat sympathetic, and the plot actually moves forward at a decent pace. Indeed, this section is the only part of the movie that has any sort of narrative thrust at all, and is the only time when the story feels like it moves forward. Alas, it’s far too little, far too late.
Along with these pacing issues, the length is an issue. At one point, 30-minutes into it, the movie stops so the janitor can tell some random guy a story that takes up ten-minutes of screen time and has no bearing whatsoever on the rest of the movie. Any momentum that might have been there dissipates and you’ve got to start all over again.
There are handful of extras on DVD, including a 12-minute interview with Bae Doo-na, and a comparison between storyboards and finished shots that is interesting for a while, but goes on too long. There is also a compilation of “highlights”, which is actually a condensed, eight-minute version of the film you just watched.
There are moments in Barking Dogs Never Bite where you get glimpses of the filmmaker that Bong Joon-ho has become. The film looks beautiful, and the photography and framing are not just competent, but interesting and unusual. Visually it ‘s a good film, but the story, pacing, and characters, alas, cast a leaden haze upon it.