A look at the films Bong Joon-ho was making two decades before Parasite - whynow

Dognapping, walnut-cracking, and puking into buckets: a look at the films Bong Joon-ho was making two decades before Parasite


This year, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won four Oscars and made history — the first non-English language film to win Best Picture — exactly twenty years after Bong made his debut feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000). While the director might have disowned it (‘Please forget it, it’s a very stupid film’), Bong’s earliest efforts have recently enjoyed UK re-release; they reveal a director with clear eyes about the insidious nature of capitalism and how dark and absurd human nature can be under the strains of the system.

CAT AND MOUSE (AND DOG)

Although more ragged round the edges, Bong Joon-ho’s first feature Barking Dogs Never Bite is a clear forerunner for his most recent and celebrated film Parasite. Two decades apart, both are domestic games of cat and mouse that use overt architectural symbolism to point towards the suffocating nature of capitalism. In both, the basest acts take place in the basement; the system forces people down in more ways than one.

There’s a scene in Barking Dogs in which Park Hyun-nam (Bae Donna) chases Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) across the balcony of the dingy apartment block where they both live. The camera moves further and further out, accentuating the building’s symmetry and geometrical lines. Think: order.

As the pair continue to sprint, the camera pans laterally and perpendicular to the action, putting us in mind of the iconic chase scenes from cartoons such as Tom and Jerry. A door opens. Hyun-nam runs straight into it. Yun-ju escapes. Bong has no problem torquing from slapstick to tension and back again. Think: chaos.

While there’s satisfaction in neatness or ‘order’ (“i”s dotted and “t”s crossed) and pleasure in surprise or ‘chaos’ (the ink well suddenly spilling and making your “i”s and “t”s illegible), the way that Bong veers between the two does more than simply entertain us: it serves his career-long broadside against capitalism, that system that orders our societies and yet brings chaos and struggle to many people living under it.

Barking Dogs Never Bite is all about scarcity played out in varying degrees around the block of flats, and how scarcity makes people act in desperate, depraved ways. (Arguably, Parasite is, too.)

NO ANIMALS WERE HARMED DURING THE MAKING OF THIS FILM

So reads a disclaimer before Barking Dogs begins in earnest — and it will shortly feel necessary.

Yun-ju is a lazy, unemployed postgrad henpecked by his working, pregnant wife. Symbolic character blocking (which will come to be a trademark of Bong’s) demonstrates the couple’s marital strife: one early scene sees Yun-ju kneeling on the floor in darkness cracking a hundred walnuts for his wife, who sits next to a lamp at the table dividing them.

Soon, the creeping sense of financial anxiety cranks up a notch, as Yun-ju realises he must raise a hefty bribe to gain an academic post. But the camel’s back breaks before this. The pernicious final straw is the endless yapping of a neighbour’s dog, which echoes around the apartment block. Yun-ju dognaps the offending party and attempts to strangle it by looping its lead over a pipe in the basement.

As more dogs go missing, Hyun-nam, who works in the building’s office, joins the search. But this is also revealed to be a desperate bid for peace; she hopes that when she finds them, she’ll be catapulted to media stardom, thus escaping impoverishment even greater than Yun-ju’s.

THE ELEVATION AND THE DESCENT

The Korean title of Bong’s debut feature translates literally as ‘Dog of Flanders’. As such, this black and absurd tragicomedy serves as an ironic rejoinder to Marie Louise de la Ramée’s 1872 novel by the same name.

‘A Dog of Flanders’ is hugely popular across Asia (particularly in Japan and Korea) where it is considered a children’s classic. It tells the story of Nello, a lonely orphan who lives in poverty with his grandfather. He’s got a talent for drawing and dreams of being a great artist.

one early scene sees Yun-ju kneeling on the floor in darkness cracking a hundred walnuts for his wife

One day, he takes in a battered dog called Patrasche and nurses him back to health, and the pair become inseparable. (I know, awwwwww.) But Nello’s life gets pretty desperate indeed when he’s accused of burning down his landlord’s house, evicted — oh, and his grandfather dies, too, just in case he hasn’t suffered enough.

With nowhere to go, Nello and Patrasche set off for Antwerp where Nello hopes to see Rubens’ ‘The Elevation of the Cross’ and ‘The Descent from the Cross’. But the exhibition is for paying customers only, and Nello is penniless. So Nello and Patrasche spend the night outside the cathedral of Antwerp. Where they both freeze to death.

A desperately sad story. Sentimental. Unlike anything Bong Joon-ho would ever make. And yet, it puts me immediately in mind of the final scene from Snowpiercer (2013) when Yona and Timmy emerge from the wreckage of the eponymous train (another overdetermined metaphor: capitalism on wheels) and step into a frozen landscape that they may or may not survive.

They spot a polar bear in the distance: either a sign that life goes on outside the train, or an encounter with one of the world’s most dangerous animals, sure to take a swipe for them.

My point is, you can see a ‘A Dog of Flanders’ through Bong-goggles: no matter how kind and decent Nello is when raising Patrasche, or how brave Yona is by saving Timmy, they both have ideas above their social station. The system doesn’t discriminate. You either learn to love it and maybe climb a couple rungs on the social ladder, or reject it. And starve. Or freeze. 

In Barking Dogs, Hyun-nam’s idea that finding the missing dogs will make her a celebrity is just an absurd of a quest as going to Antwerp to see the Rubens. The system renders such goals meaningless, and, ultimately, achieving them won’t make much of a difference — though Bong’s characters will sometimes achieve some form of success at the end of his films, it’s usually not the earth-moving Hollywood variety.

Rather, the capitalist system is as solid as a building or a train; you might be able to travel up and down, perhaps even along it, but you’re still trapped inside it.

BOILER KIM

Speaking of being trapped inside buildings, one scene in Barking Dogs sees Bong rapidly shift the mood from farce to ghost story when a lightbulb blows in the basement. A janitor tells the tale of Boiler Kim, lit from below as if beside a campfire.

The story goes that when Boiler Kim was hired to fix the building’s heating, he challenged those in charge of embezzling funds; he died in the scuffle and is said to be cemented between the walls.

Unexpected tonal shifts being another of Bong’s hallmarks, here comedy and horror are yoked together, and all the better to strengthen the director’s critique of the rapid development of South Korea. How many Kims ended up collateral damage?

MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003)

Following Barking Dogs, Bong Joon-ho’s second feature proved to be a critical and popular success. Riffing off the true case of the most infamous serial killer in modern South Korean history (who at the time of filming had evaded authorities) Memories of Murder is a wildly entertaining send-up of a police procedural. And much more besides.

Long-time Bong collaborator Kang-ho Song plays local policeman Park, who thinks of himself as a shaman and believes primarily in the power of his own gaze to determine guilt or innocence. Meanwhile, his partner Cho’s (Roe Ha-kim’s) preferred method of investigation seems to be two-footing suspects in the chest.

God knows the hapless pair need help, and Detective Seo (Sang Kyung-Kim) comes down from the big city to lend them a hand. Again, see Bong’s symbolic character blocking: Seo spends the first quarter of the film looking away from the investigative team, rifling through empirical documents — further cementing the characters’ opposing strategies to get at the truth. 

‘I ONLY BEAT YOU UP BECAUSE I CARE ABOUT YOU’

So says Detective Cho – a line typical of the film’s black comedy. It’s a line that seems to resonate with the way Bong plays with genre: his films seem reverent of the rules, even as they rip up the rule book.

Time and again, Bong will take stable genre elements and explode them: take The Host (2006), Korea’s first ‘monster film’. Yet, unlike, say, Godzilla, where the huge creature is revealed bit by bit to build suspense, Bong shows you his truck-sized mutated fish in broad daylight within the film’s first ten minutes. It’s all the more thrilling, because the film could go anywhere from that point on.

Memories of Murder similarly trashes the conventions of the police procedural early on. When the first body is discovered in a rice field, the crime scene is complete chaos: forensics haven’t turned up. Police take pratfalls into a nearby ditch. A tractor runs over a vital footprint. Children run through the field near the corpse, which the police are completely ignoring.

Slapstick and deadpan, there’s a serious theme underlying all this — how dark and absurd human nature can be. The detective genre is marked by its insistence on making sense of patterns; the philosophical quandary here is whether there is really any grand pattern to make sense of.

‘WHAT A FILM DIRECTOR REALLY DIRECTS IS THE AUDIENCE’S ATTENTION’

That is, according to the late American director Alexander Mackendrick. It’s an adage that holds true in Bong’s case.

One scene from Memories stands out as an example of this and of Bong’s oeuvre as a whole. Park and Seo are arguing late at night and everyone’s wasted. Another kind of director might have opted to cut between close-ups here to enhance the tension, but Bong goes for ensemble staging.

Park and Seo are on opposite sides of a table aggressively pointing bananas at one another. The chief has passed out between two women on the sofa in the centre of the shot, while in the background, behind the sofa, Cho is fumbling about with a hostess, as evidenced by the shaking leaves of a potted plant. 

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The camera slowly moves in, blocking our view of the two women on the sofa, to focus on the argument, which is getting heated; just as things get physical, the chief suddenly wakes up and gestures for a bowl to be sick into. After vomiting, he scolds the pair for fighting and reminds them of the unsolved murders.

Bong’s meticulous scene design means you don’t feel your attention being directed, but it is: consider how we focus on characters who are speaking, where they are pointing (with or without bananas), or how our eyes will naturally drift towards the middle of a shot (the sleeping chief, the literal and moral centre of the scene) or towards movement (the rustling plant). Bong also ensures that your attention is always rewarded.

THE ART OF SUBTLETY

‘Subtle’ is probably not the first word that you’d use to describe Memories of Murder (or any of Bong’s work for that matter); later in the film, the local government is unable to enforce a curfew to prevent another rape-murder because all the extra manpower has been deployed to suppress a pro-democracy protest. It’s on-the-nose, since Memories is an interrogation into governance and accountability. It asks how we can put our faith in an authority that (literally) attacks you.

Yet, on a granular level, Bong is a very subtle director indeed. No matter how overt his metaphors, how disparate his tones and moods, his enduring political conviction is that the rich and the poor feed off one another, and ultimately, no-one is blameless (least of all those who uphold the structures they live within.)

While it’s all-too-human to be frustrated by yapping dogs, to get drunk and act selfishly, to resort to desperate measures in desperate times, Bong always has his gaze fixed on the system as a whole, ever sympathetic to how it affects the Average Joes and Boiler Kims among us. 


Barking Dogs Never Bite and Memories of Murder are currently streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.

Rampa  They Will Be