I was a late joiner to the Bong Joon-ho fan club. I didn’t see any of his films prior to the US release of Snowpiercer (which ended up being Swampflix’s very first pick for Movie of the Year), and I shamefully still—all these years later—have not doubled back to catch up with his early catalog. Now that the runaway success of Parasite has made him an Oscar-certified sweetheart of the industry, Bong’s early films are easier to access than ever, so I have few remaining excuses to cover those blind spots. It took nine long years for his debut feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite, to land proper American distribution, but now it’s just sitting right there on Hulu waiting to make you laugh & squirm along with the director’s other darkly funny genre pranks. It obviously doesn’t match the budgetary scale of the eye-popping spectacles Bong would later deliver in films like Okja, Snowpiercer, and The Host, but it’s just as worthy of a post-Oscars re-evaluation of his decades-long career. If nothing else, it’s good to be reminded that the adorable man who became a meme by making his Oscars statues kiss also has a deeply fucked up, vicious sense of humor.
Barking Dogs Never Bite feels like Bong Joon-ho’s version of the post-Clerks slacker comedy, complete with a couple of listless corner store clerks among its cast of downtrodden losers. Gen-X apathy & ennui weighs heavy on its central players, a loose collection of near-destitute tenants of a multi-tiered apartment complex, barely earning enough through their entry-level jobs to feed themselves. The title refers to the violent hijinks of an out-of-work academic whose peaceful days lounging around the apartment (which his pregnant wife pays for) are interrupted by a neighbor’s small, yipping dog. The absolute worm of a man takes his frustrations over his stalled career out on various small dogs throughout the building, murdering them in an effort to quiet his own mind. These outbursts of animal cruelty catch the eye of an anonymous notary who lives nearby, daydreaming about earning celebrity through heroic acts of vigilantism. As the would-be vigilante tracks down the pathetic dog killer, the small minds & embarrassments of their daily routines pile up in an increasingly absurd tangling of their lives, somehow amounting to a pitch-black hangout comedy instead of a low-budget crime thriller. It’s the exact kind of ironic slice-of-life slacker tale you’d expect to see at a film festival in the 1990s, except with a much sharper eye for visual gags & splendor than what you’d typically expect from movies on its budget level.
Bong’s debut is hilarious but vicious, which feels consistent with everything he’s done since. Even so, violence against dogs is one of the few remaining taboos that make audiences squeamish, so it still cuts deep. It’s the kind of movie that’s almost pointless to log on the content-warning database Does the Dog Die?, as its entire purpose is to mash that exact taboo button. The dogs that are killed are cute & pathetic. Their murderer waits maybe a scene & a half before deciding to violently shut them up, not even suffering the expected montage where they annoy him for days on end until he snaps. Even as someone with a high tolerance for shocking art, I was thankful that the film opened with an obligatory “No animals were harmed” title card instead of saving it for the end credits. Still, I don’t know that I ever fully believed it, as whatever puppetry, camera trickery, or hidden harness support they used to depict the pups in peril was impressively convincing. I was in love with Bong’s playful camera set-ups, non sequitur ghost stories, sped-up Benny Hill chase sequences, and onslaughts of discordant jazz, but I can’t claim that the puppy violence didn’t upset me. It’s supposed to be upsetting, because Bong Joon-ho is a sick fuck, which is easy to forget as he’s become something of a Film Twitter mascot.
I remember there being a lot of memes at the expense of Chris Evans delivering the teary line “Babies taste best” in Snowpiercer, as if it were funny by accident. I always found that mockery to be odd, as that moment didn’t feel especially over-the-top to me, at least not relative to every other batshit crazy thing that happens in that movie. Having now seen Bong Joon-ho’s debut feature—a feel-bad hangout comedy about a series of dog murders—I’m even more convinced that the Snowpiercer memesters (likely just hungry to dunk on the limitations of Captain America’s acting talents) got it wrong. Given Bong’s larger body of work, I believe that line was both intentionally funny and sincere. It’s both a discomforting moment where a man deals with the guilt of surviving on the nourishment of baby-meat and a darkly humorous punchline that underlines just how depraved the film’s trainbound universe has gotten. I’ve now seen Bong apply that exact discomforting humor to the onscreen death of puppies, so why not the off-screen death of babies? Lots to think about there, lots to consider.