Bong’s first film is unique, not just of Korean cinema, but of most. It’s a mostly lyrical piece–lyrical in the storytelling sense, not the filmmaking (there are only a couple of stylized moments in the film)–juxtaposing Lee Sung-jae and Bae Du-na. Lee’s a grad student trying to become a professor, Bae’s an office assistant in his apartment complex. Bong ties them together–and relates to the film’s title–through the incidence of a missing dog. (Lee took it–for barking–and Bae’s trying to help find it). But Bong also ties them together through the film’s tone. It’s an examination of listlessness and unnamable wishes. The film’s incredibly delicate for how outrageous it occasionally gets and some of Bong’s conclusion nears Danny Rose caliber, which is rather high for a first time filmmaker.
Although Lee’s ostensibly more the main character, the film rests with Bae. She carries it, especially through the sections where Lee is after one dog or another (the barking is irritating him). Bae maintains a tranquility as the story occasionally goes crazy around her. Bong’s tone helps a lot, of course, but Bae’s silence–much like Lee’s wife (finding the actors names–on an English page anyway–for the film is proving impossible)–often does a lot more than talking would accomplish.
Googling around, looking for those names, I’m seeing Barking Dogs Never Bite described as a black comedy. The label works to some extent, but about halfway through, it stops applying… Bong takes the film to a further level (that one evoking Broadway Danny Rose). For example, as funny as one long sequence about a ghost in the boiler room gets, it’s nowhere near as effective–in terms of triggering the viewer’s imagination–as a sequence involving a bet and a roll of toilet paper. Similarly, while Lee spends lots of his time alone and his wife doesn’t–from my bilingual fellow Korean film enthusiasts–merit a name transliteration, the relationship between the couple (she’s pregnant and working) is the spine running through the film. At the beginning, Bong doesn’t establish Lee as married and the marriage’s importance becomes gradually lucid even after it’s introduced… it’s another one of the film’s delicacies.
Bong ends the film well after a possibly rocky third act. It’s a deft save, when he brings in a little stylization and hits that Danny Rose moment. I keep trying to come up with a sentence to capture both its impressiveness as a first film, but also to disregard that impressiveness since the compliment seems like it’s qualifying the film’s quality, which I do not want to do.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Bong, Song Ji-ho and Derek Son Tae-woong; directors of photography, Cho Yong-kyou and Jo Yeong-gyu; edited by Lee Eun Soo; music by Jo Sung-woo; production designer, Lee Hang; produced by Cho Min-hwan; released by Cinema Service.
Starring Lee Sung-jae (Yun-ju), Bae Du-na (Hyeon-nam), Byeon Hie-bong, Kim Ho-jung and Kim Roe-ha.