Title: Barking Dogs Never Bite (Flandersui gae)
Director: BONG Joon-ho
Performers: LEE Sung-jae, BAE Doo-na, KIM Ho-jung.
Breed(s) Featured: Shih Tzu, Miniature Pinscher, Toy Poodle
Production: Cinema Service, 2000 (South Korea)
“You see the news last night? … It was about who makes the best husbands. Guess who took first and second place? Doctors and lawyers. And 48th on the list was…”
“That’s right. The 49th was farmers. And 50th was… Humanities grad students.”
A struggling wannabe professor, Yoon-ju, is all too aware of how far down he ranks on the social totem pole. He is under the financial and emotional sway of his pregnant wife, desperate for advancement under a corrupt academic system, yet disgusted by the ways in which everyone around him flouts the law. Driven to madness by a neighbor’s yapping dog, he decides to take matters into his own hands, kidnapping the first toy dog he encounters in his labyrinthine apartment complex and “disposing” of the dog in the basement storage area.
However, it turns out to be the wrong dog. So Yoon-ju strikes again. Things get more complicated when a young building administration clerk, Hyeon-nam, gets involved. Driven by her twin impulses of naive, genuine compassion as well as a desire to be more than an unrecognized, marginalized nobody, Hyeon-nam resolves to uncover the mystery of the missing dogs (three in all). Along the way, she unwittingly ends up assisting and befriending one of the perpetrators.
Add an eccentric janitor with a taste for stolen dog meat, Hyeon-nam’s tough-talking girlfriend, and a homeless maniac who has long been haunting the apartment complex undetected, and you get a very bizarre, often disturbing tale of urban, working class anomie.
Like many of the films listed on this blog, this is not a dog movie for the faint-hearted. Without giving too much away, I think it’s fair to warn that not every dog makes it out of the story alive. And while we are reminded that “No animals were harmed in the making of this film” at the very beginning, I highly doubt that they managed to fly in an Certified Animal Safety Representatative™ to monitor the production. I do have to question some of the frighteningly realistic treatment of some of the dogs. You do not hear or witness the act of any dog dying, which is where I would draw the line. However, some “props” used in certain scenes manage to horrify with great success, as intended.
This leads me to the one brief point I want to make about the film, situating the theme of dog-eating in its Asian context. No doubt that Barking Dogs Never Bite, for all its poignant and acerbic truths, does not translate well to Western audiences — rather ironic, given that the Korean title is “Dog of Flanders” in a nod to the old English story and, in a sense, the unidirectionality of canine cultural tropes. Despite its smart script, strong cast, and clean cinematography, this film will be condemned to limited distribution due to the repulsive nature of one central plot device, the consumption of pet dogs.
To put it clearly, coexisting amongst members of any group that have eaten dogs are those who find the very idea abhorrent and morally degenerate. This film would not work if dog-eating was considered an ethical norm in the country, which is something to keep in mind before regarding this story as emblematic of Korean practices. I feel like this needs to be said in order to check the impulse to essentialize on the basis of either superficial cultural relativism (i.e. “They’re merely ‘telling it like it is,’ because they eat dogs there,” as if there was a singular “they” or a homogeneous “there” to speak of!) or recoiling into the safety of one’s own ethnic superiority (“Oh how dreadful I can’t even imagine because we could never be so cruel.”)
The larger truth, as this film ultimately points out, is that there is room for all of us to strive to become “a higher animal” (to borrow from the film’s alternate English title). The philosophical measure of this certainly includes, but is greater than one’s epicurean choices.