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Friday, July 30, 2010

BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE -- DVD review by porfle

In his feature-length directorial debut, BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE (2000), Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho (MOTHER, THE HOST) serves up a recipe that takes awhile to simmer into savory cinematic goodness but is worth the wait for those who don't like to eat and run.  And yes, I suck at food puns.

The film opens with one of those "no animals were harmed" disclaimers, the reason for which soon becoming clear as we watch harried apartment dweller Yoon-ju (Lee Sung-jae) kidnap a neighbor's incessantly barking dog and go about trying to come up with a way to kill it.  Unable to drop it off the roof, he then takes it into the basement and hangs it with a length of rope in a scene that will have dog lovers squirming in their seats.  Finally, he simply shoves the pooch into a cabinet and bars the doors.  Problem solved--until he discovers that it's the wrong dog when the barking continues.  Finally locating the offending canine, Yoon-ju works up the nerve to carry it to the roof and fling it over the side.

This time, however, his dastardly deed is witnessed by Hyun-nam (the wonderful Bae Doo-na, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE), a janitor in the office building next door, and her portly BFF Jang-mi (Go Soo-hee, LADY VENGEANCE), who runs a convenience shop on the first floor.  Hyun-nam rushes across the street into Yoon-ju's building and relentlessly pursues him until he finally makes his escape.  Later, she befriends him when she finds him posting "missing dog" placards--ironically, his pregnant, mercilessly domineering wife's precious mutt has run away while in his care and he's been ordered to find it or else.  But little does Hyun-nam suspect that her new friend is the very villain she's searching for.

BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE has the same deliberate pace and matter-of-fact presentation as another Korean film, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, but its moments of drama and pathos are interlaced with a dark and very wry sense of humor that sometimes borders on the absurd.  In one scene, Yoon-ju finds himself hiding in that cabinet in the basement while he watches a creepy janitor happily butchering the first dog for a stew.  A friend stops by to join him, and the janitor regails him with the terrifying story of "Boiler Kim", whose ghost is said to haunt the basement, in a lengthy detour that the film is quite happy to devote several minutes to.  Naturally, a severely spooked Yoon-ju gets locked in the dark basement overnight.

Although we can never really forgive him for his early deeds, Yoon-ju is a somewhat sympathetic character who lives under a cloud of quiet desperation and seems to have a tenuous grasp on reality.  He yearns to be a college professor but must find the means to bribe a greedy dean whose price is steep, while his cold-fish wife intimidates and demeans him at every turn.  His friendship with Hyun-nam becomes a bright spot in his life, yet behind it is always the fear that she'll discover who he really is.

As for Hyun-nam, she's the introspective yet plucky heart of the story and her close relationship with Jang-mi is displayed both in their good-natured squabbling and in some surprisingly tender and moving moments.  Hyun-nam's determined pursuit of Yoon-ju through the apartment building is both exciting and funny--the ending is pure cartoon slapstick--and later, when she tracks down Yoon-ju's own missing dog and daringly attempts to rescue it from yet another hobo stew, the sequence is exhilarating. 

Director Boon Joon-Ho is adept at combining achingly deadpan comedy (the toilet paper scene is priceless) and world-weary melancholy punctuated by moments of startling dramatic impact.  Some patience is required of the viewer, not because the film is boring but because it moseys along at its own deliberate pace and refuses to be rushed.  I had no problem with this since the story is absorbing enough to maintain interest, while rewarding the viewer with some riveting narrative passages (such as the "Boiler Kim" story), perceptive glimpses into the characters, and unexpected flashes of visual delight and giddy humor.

The DVD from Magnolia Home Entertainment is in 1.85:1 widescreen, Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 Korean soundtrack with English and Spanish subtitles.  Extras include an interview with Bae Doo-na, storyboard and film comparisons, a highlight montage (which serves no apparent purpose), and the international trailer. 

BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE is a trip worth taking (if you can get past the graphic depictions of doggy abuse), although you may be a little dispirited by where some of the characters end up. And like Hyun-nam and her friend, who long to get away from the oppressive city and lose themselves in nature, the film just kind of wanders off into the woods.

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