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Original Title:
Flandersui gae

South Korea 2000

Comedy, Drama

Bong Joon-ho

Lee Sung-jae
Bae Du-na
Byeon Hie-bong
Kim Ho-jung
Kim Roe-ha

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Barking Dogs Never Bite

Story: Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) works part-time as a lecturer. He has no real job. His wife, on the other hand, is pregnant and also brings in the monthly income. She always makes her husband feel it that she is the one who is in the driver's seat. Therefore, Yun-ju unsuccessfully tries to get together some money in order to bribe the dean, so that he finally gets an occupation as a professor. He feels really lousy. When he is also constantly being annoyed by the barking of a dog in his apartment building, he loses it. He snatches the dog and locks it up in a closet in the basement. However, shortly thereafter he finds out that this very dog wasn't the one that drove him into madness. But it's too late to rescue the four-legged buddy, as the janitor already made him into dog soup...
Hyeon-nam (Bae Du-na) works at the management control center of the apartment complex in which Yun-ju lives. She has to stamp lots of missing dog-ads lately, as there are oddly many dogs vanishing. Hyeon-Nam is a dreamer and she doesn't wish for anything more than to become a heroine and be featured in a TV report. Soon she gets the chance to prove herself, as she witnesses Yun-ju throwing a dog from the rooftop of the building across the street...

Review: One thing is for sure - there aren't many directors with such a unique style as Bong Joon-ho. In his debut film (before that he already shot some short films) Bong shows an incredible sense for profound sociocritical structures, which he successfully refines with a refreshingly odd sense of black humor. What we get in the end is a genre mix that isn't easy to define and curious in some way, but at all time is a fascinating and appealing movie experience, also. "Barking Dogs Never Bite" is free from any unneccessary restrictions and doesn't stick to contrived filmmaking formulas. This may also mean that the movie looks a bit like art house cinema, but this impression soon proves to be a false one, since Bong's work at no point feels superfluously emotionally distant. However, it always remains open in which direction the film might head. Everything seems to be possible. Thanks to well elaborated characters and two great actors, the movie can always keep up our interest for what's unfolding before us, and thus succeeds in delivering a movie experience of the likes you don't get often.

If you've read through the story summary, you might have come to believe that this is a very black comedy, that you are presented with here. But then again, the film isn't that black if you look closely. Well, yes the humor always remains odd and black in tone, but that's not the point, as you will see.
Furthermore, some may feel bad about the way dogs are treated in this movie. At the beginning the producers stress that not a single animal has been harmed and that a dog trainer always has been present during shooting. But this doesn't change the fact that the brutality depicted towards the four-legged race looks pretty damn real. This may be quite irritating for some viewers, but especially during the harshest scene of them all, namely when a dog gets hung up at a rope, we see that the animal is actually having no pain at all. Moreover, if you are blaming the director to have a bad taste because he tortures dogs etc., then you surely are on the wrong road, and even more worse: You completely missed the message of the movie.

Which is that it's not about dogs, for once. The english title more or less has Yun-ju in mind. He may not be a loud or foulmouthed fellow, but we still get the impression that he is a mean, barking dog. For the viewer it's impossible to relate to him at first, but as time goes by we learn to understand his actions and find out that he isn't such a bad person at all.
Maybe I'm just overinterpreting things, since the original title means "A Dog of Flanders", which is also the title of a tragic and sad novel by Ouida from the year 1872, revolving around a poor boy and his beloved dog. A novel that is much better known in Asia than it is in Europe... Thus, it may also be part of the director's sense for black humor that made him name his movie like this very novel. Humor which is also apparent the whole film through.
Lee Sung-jae ("Attack the Gas Station", "Holiday", "Daisy") has become a famous actor in Korea nowadays, and in this early work of his he already shows why. His multi-layered portrait of a lonely man, who simply wants some success in life, leaves no doubt that he is one of the best of his profession.

Bae Du-na ("Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", "The Host", "Linda, Linda, Linda") is at least as great as her colleague. This movie also marks her breakthrough. With her very charming portrayal of a girl who strives for more, but in the end just seems to be a daydreamer, she is everything but your typical Korean woman. She can also be quite headstrong at times, and especially during the humorous scenes she can score with her deadpan face which stands in great contrast to her otherwise slightly extroverted character.
The humor in "Barking Dogs Never Bite" is by far no laugh-out-loud humor, and at some times even more subtle than you might expect, but it is always apparent, and can really amuse. Besides the subtle and well implemented humor the film is first and foremost a drama. This also becomes apparent when it comes to the pacing, which is rather slow. Director Bong takes his time to tell his stories and if it's a horror story about "Boiler Kim" that two janitors talk about in the basement, then that's simply so. For the viewer this might feel a bit odd, but it's also refresing and funny.

Bong Joon-ho, who should demonstrate his filmmaking abilities with "Memories of Murder" or "The Host" once more, creates some very nice pictures and does some fine camera work, even though it's pretty obvious that he didn't had much money at his disposal. Nonetheless, especially the way he filmed the apartment complex and the many balconies from a distance, is very beautiful to look at. Furthermore, Bong also doesn't shy away from inserting some cheering crowds on top of the rooftops when Hyeon-nam's imagination demands it. But these nice tricks aren't what's giving the film its special kind of movie magic. Bong's discreet and subtle directing, along with the way he introduces his characters and the story to the audience, are the reasons why this movie is so outstanding. And of course I shouldn't forget to mention the black humor one more time.
Moreover, "Barking Dogs Never Bite" is unexpectedly profound. There is a lot of material to analyze. Or you could just let yourself go and be entertained. Interestingly enough the viewer isn't even quite aware of how deep he already dived into the movie, until we get to see a simple, yet incredibly affecting scene towards the end, which level of emotion really can give you goosebumps. This is a trademark and trick of Bong that he always manages to pull off in his works.

"Barking Dogs Never Bite" is an exceptional movie with nice humor and depth. As a character drama it also works out quite well. Because of its uniqueness the film would have deserved an extra point in the rating, but I sadly have to reject this point because of the fact that the movie has some slight problems with focus. Nevertheless, a great film, that did its share to give Korean cinema the good reputation it has today.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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