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.)