Friday, March 09, 2007

Don't pass the Bong!

I'm loving all the praise for Bong Joon-ho's terrific movie The Host. (Pictured above: Bae Duna!) Gary Indiana did the cover story for a recent Artforum...Anthony Lane dug it in The New Yorker...and now Manohla Dargis raves about it in the Times.

But! This!:
Bong Joon-ho’s previous features include a smart-aleck exercise in gratuitous nonsense called “Barking Dogs Never Bite” (they just comically kick the bucket) and the shiver-inducing thriller “Memories of Murder.”
No, no! Barking Dogs Never Bite isn't smart-alecky by a long shot. I don't even know how that could possibly apply (a "were we watching the same movie?" moment)...And "gratuitous nonsense"? The film is often very funny, but it's pretty chilling as well. Just because it hasn't been distributed doesn't mean it's a lesser work than the Bong films that have surfaced stateside.

So, ye gods of distribution! Disregard that paragraph and get Barking Dogs into theaters! It's still my favorite Bong hit (which is saying a lot—Memories and The Host are both excellent), and probably my favorite of the recent Korean cinema.

Since Barking Dogs is hard to track down (though at, I did find a very inexpensive VCD), I thought I'd run a bit from my Bong article that appeared in Cinema Scope in 2003. (The full piece, including a discussion of Memories of Murder, will appear in Michael Atkinson's Exile Cinema...whenever that book comes out!):

The Bong Show
By Ed Park

Allegorical and intimate, terrifying and wry, Bong Joon-ho’s black comedies are written with invisible ink; they’re suspense pictures that neatly derail into hip-deep melancholy, composed with something like the acid eye of Billy Wilder. Bong navigates disparate environments with equal ease: a gargantuan Seoul apartment complex in Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), a weatherbeaten hamlet with far too many unprotected arteries in the new Memories of Murder. Though the films differ in tone and atmosphere, they share a capacity for narrative and visual surprise, a serious philosophical bent, and, not least, a social critique as subtle as it is penetrating, teasing out the eroded borders where culture ends, and greed, madness, even atavism surface. Add to these virtues Bong’s considerable storytelling chops and you have a 35-year-old director of eye-popping originality and voracious range.

Near the start of his assured debut, Barking Dogs, two bored-at-work young women languidly attack a crossword puzzle over the phone – 15 across, to be specific, with spaces for four syllables. “Reciprocal?” asks Hyeon-nam (Bae Doo-na), an employee in the maintenance office of the stolid mega-apartments where most of the movie transpires. “No, it’s reciprocate,” says her plump friend, a convenience store worker, chiding Hyeon-nam for not knowing what it means.

To reciprocate, of course, is to return in kind; the verb suggests a mirroring corollary to the golden rule: Do unto others. Hyeon-nam knows the meaning well enough: Inspired by TV news footage of a petite bank teller thwarting a robber, she’s a heroine-in-waiting.

She certainly understands the word better than the picture’s well-educated male protagonist, Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae). Barking Dogs opens with him despairing over the difficulties of landing an academic post in his field, human behaviour. His pregnant wife brings home the bacon, emasculating him further with capricious demands. A dog’s yapping suddenly pushes him over the brink, and soon he’s scooped up the poor creature and tried to hang it in the basement. He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirrored door of a busted armoire, suffers an attack of scruples, and stows the pooch inside the furniture for some quiet time.

With that one misguided act, Yun-ju slips into a moral twilight zone, localized as the topsy-turvy domain of the basement. Bong, playing on the knife edge of farce and nightmare, has a field day showing how a seemingly minor transgression won’t disappear, each ripple, with tragic consequences for the culprit. Yun-ju sees a little girl’s poster: her missing dog can’t bark because its vocal cords have been removed. High-tailing it to the basement to free his innocent quarry, he finds the armoire empty – until he jumps in himself, as footsteps sound. As in a Poe tale, he watches in terror as the janitor butchers the dog for meat, then – hearing a noise from Yun-ju’s vicinity – approaches, blade in hand. Is the universe reciprocating – putting him in the now-dead animal's place, sending an executioner in response to his brazen dognapping?

Another custodian provides a distraction, and the canine-consuming janitor, still rattled, regales him with a story. Soon after the apartment was slapped together in 1988 – at the time of the Seoul Olympics-driven boom – chronic heating problems led the owners to summon the legendary Boiler Kim, who could solve any maintenance dilemma. But when his job was complete, he raged at his employers, knowing that such shoddy construction meant that funds earmarked for the proper building materials must have been embezzled. In the ensuing fracas, he hit his head on a nail in the wall and died. His body was covered with cement, and every night an eerie “spinning” sound can be heard. With spartan effects, Bong presents this as the ultimate campfire tale – a real-estate ghost story, told over a cooking fire, no less.

Barking Dogs also exposes another “traditional” practice: bribery. Palm-greasing exists everywhere, of course, but the practice seems particularly ingrained in Korean culture. The heads of some Korean university departments are widely known to bestow favours on job candidates willing to make it worth their while. Yun-ju’s friend advises him that a gift of ten grand should do the trick. Yun-ju vows that if he ever becomes a professor, he’ll never accept a bribe, but, despite his distaste, he realizes that this is how one gets ahead in Korea – to hold out is to commit career suicide. Bong artfully complicates this view with two secondhand stories – the cautionary tale of Boiler Kim (whistleblower turned ghost) and the heroic tale of the bank teller (rewarded for stopping a theft of money that wasn’t hers).

Yun-ju’s gnawing career dilemma and his tensions with his wife leave him feeling powerless. The one thing he can control is the volume. After emerging from the chamber of horrors (locked in the basement, he climbs out through a window, slowly sprawling backward onto the grass as though being born), he abducts another dog – the real culprit – and this time heads above. Once resigned to God’s will when it came to his professional career, he now makes an unconscious blood offering by flinging the dog off the roof.

This second death mortally affects the dog’s owner, an old woman. God (let’s say) returns in kind. Yun-ju’s wife brings home a newly purchased, ludicrously coiffed poodle, on whom she dotes. Then the dog disappears while Yun-ju grumblingly walks it, his sight and mind obscured as they pass through a blinding fumigation cloud. He crosses paths with Hyeong-nam, ever the do-gooder. She finally can play the hero, rescuing the poodle from its captor (an insane homeless man); this act saves Yun-ju’s marriage and, it turns out, his career, as his wife converts her severance pay into the bribe money.

Whether the subsequent life, thus attained, will be of any value is a different matter. “Close the curtains, please,” says Yun-ju at the film’s close, a professor at last. His lecture is about to begin, complete with “charts on modern behaviourism.” The light is blocked, window by window. Is it the beginning of the lecture, or the end of the show? As darkness swallows the new professor, Bong cuts to Hyeon-nam and her friend, walking in the woods in glorious daylight.

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