Following his dual Oscar wins for Parasite – unprecedented for a foreign language feature – way back in February, South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho is perhaps this year’s most important director, not least because his films – rooted as they are in class politics and manic heightened realities – are so very 2020. So what better time to re-release two of his early, brilliant works into cinemas and streaming?
Barking Dogs Never Bite
Director Bong’s debut 2000 feature Barking Dogs Never Bite is a clear precursor to his most recent work. Twenty years on, it’s delightful to see his trademarks – class politics, manic characters, and pitch-black humour – so well developed from the get go. But the pleasure of Barking Dogs Never Bite is all its own, from its surreal apartment block rendered in sickly greens and distorted wide angles, to the ethical ambivalence of its protagonist’s antics.
Down on his luck Yun-ju (Lee Sung-Jae) lives in his apartment with his pregnant, extremely demanding fiance. Broke and harried, the final straw comes when his neighbour’s dog won’t stop yapping, so taking matters into his own hands he abducts the dog and kills it. A shame, then, when he learns that the poor animal couldn’t bark and it was actually another dog making a racket. No matter, he simply takes that one and hurls it off the roof. Meanwhile, Bong regular Bae Doona, playing resident Hyun-nam, makes efforts to catch the dog killer and bring him to justice.
Director Bong populates his film with a rich cast of absurd characters – at times the film is very reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen, both in visuals and tone. Bong utilises elements of the surreal and the satirical to interrogate, but never outright condemn, his characters for their meanness of spirit.
Memories of Murder
2003’s Memories of Murder is an altogether more sober affair. A crime thriller with hints of David Fincher and Kitano Takeshi, Bong’s second film was based on a stage play by Kim Kwang-rim, itself loosely based on the first recorded serial killings in Korea, which were conducted between 1986 and 1991.
Song Kang-ho, in his first of four collaborations with the director, stars as detective Park, burdened with finding the culprit of a string of sexually-motivated murders. Crude in his methods and competencies, Park’s vices are a dark reflection of many of the virtues of loose-cannon cops in conventional crime thrillers. Allergic to both method and evidence-based detection, Park boasts of being able to tell if a suspect is guilty just by looking in their eyes, yet his strongest talent seems to be in extracting false confessions from the hapless, vulnerable men he arbitrarily drags in for interrogation.
A sickly half-light hangs over the film’s visuals like damp in a crumbling building that refuses to shift, while his camera isolates and dissects the bodies of the living and the dead. Park and his dubious colleagues seem incapable of breaking away from dead-end leads and suspects, as if the rain that heralds every new killing washes away the remembrance of their past mistakes. The brilliance of Memories of Murder is in a moral ambivalence towards Park that goes beyond the simplicity of American crime cinema’s bad cops that get good results. Park is a bad cop who he doesn’t even get good results, but through some alchemy of Song’s wearied performance and Bong’s refusal to draw simple moral equivalences, Park becomes a figure of pathos.
Meanwhile, the final, rain-soaked act is an early example of Bong’s use of rain as destructive moral and emotional catharsis. The brilliant climax, involving the likely culprit, Park and hotshot Seoul detective Seo (Kim San-Kyung), is surely inspired by Fincher’s Se7en while curiously prefiguring the American director’s later film – and one of Bong’s favourites, Zodiac.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm