Bong Joon-ho: An Introduction

Murder investigations, monsters and dog-killers populate the four genre-laden feature films that Bong Joon-ho has given us.  With one exception, he is a genre director of the highest caliber, managing to respect the conventions of the genres he uses while at the same time toying with our expectations. A movie-lover’s director, Bong isn’t afraid the pack as much as he can into any given shot or scene. With each successive film he has become a stronger director, displaying self-control, nuance, and complexity.  

Bong began his career with two short films in the late 90s before directing his first feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite. That slight effort of a film didn’t make much of a splash either in his home country of Korea or in America. But with his second feature, Memories of Murder, Bong began to build a momentum that has carried through his third and fourth films, The Host and Mother. His films have been screened at Cannes and hailed by Quentin Tarantino, which could either be positives or negatives, depending on your point of view. Over the next week, I’ll be taking a look at each film individually, in chronological order.

Barking Dogs Never Bite (Bong Joon-ho, 2000)

The only film in Bong’s filmography that has no genre attachments is probably his worst for it. Here Bong merely sets up a group of characters, letting them interact in both dramatic and comedic scenarios. If raw energy and cinematic bravura alone made a great movie, Bong Joon-ho’s debut feature would’ve have been a towering masterpiece. The film is full of details and visual innovation, grabbing at and holding our attention every step along the way. This is the work of a director who isn’t afraid to let it all hang out. Too bad there isn’t much to hang it on.

Barking Dogs Never Bite focuses on an out of work professor living with his pregnant wife in a massive apartment complex. He’s at home a lot and he hates the sound of yapping dogs. He knows that the animals aren’t allowed in the complex, so he takes it upon himself to find and get rid of these unauthorized pets. The film also follows the young girl who works in the complex office. She helps the tenants who’ve lost their dogs, authorizing their “lost dog” posters. Finally, the film involves the apartment complex maintenance man, who finds these dead dogs and tries to eat them. These three characters will converge in some strange ways by the end.

The strength of the narrative is largely in the ironies of the characters’ interactions. The would-be professor has no problem disposing of a pesky dog, but he winces while he secretly watches the maintenance man prepare his canine meal. The office girl wants to be on TV when she sees a heroic woman stop a robber on the news, but when she heroically saves a dog from the dinner table, the news station cuts her interview out of the report. A climactic friendship blooms between the young man and the office girl, despite the fact he is the dog killer that she’s been searching for. And the maintenance man, one of the most comically disgusting characters in recent years, never gets his desired meal. There’s a coy quality here that Bong never hints at in his other films, leading me to believe that he might be a decent screwball comedy director if he gave it a sporting try.

On their own, these ironies are little more than trite. Bong compensates by filling each scene with eye-catching style, but it can only cover up so many narrative sins. The frame may always be filled with unique camera angles and movement, and the editing might be graceful and innovative, but none of those things bring any focus to the narrative that they surround. Bong milks everything he can out of each scene. There’s energy enough for five films, and all that energy is married to nothing; it just hangs there. If cinematic flash is all you need to enjoy a film, you might enjoy Barking Dogs. Watching it, you can almost see Bong finding his voice as a director.

Come back on Friday for a look at Bong’s second film, Memories of Murder.


2 thoughts on “Bong Joon-ho: An Introduction

  1. This is the only one of Bong’s movies I’ve seen (I’m pretty behind on any kind of film-watching, regrettably). I didn’t really care for it, and I think your recap encapsulates why; it was interesting to look at but not as interesting to sit through. I’m looking forward to your writeups on his later, more genre films, as I tend to be more of a genre fan.

  2. Travis, you should definitely check out Memories of Murder and The Host. They are both solid genre pieces. Mother is too, but I feel like it sort of detaches itself from the genre in the process while the other films play it straight.

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