Best of Korean Cinema #4 – Joon Ho-Bong (part one)
The Best of Korean Cinema is a running series of articles that comes out every two weeks, in which I take a look at the best 21st century Korea has to offer, cinematically speaking, whether that means big names like Park Chan Wook and Kim Jee Woon or unknown curios that deserve the coverage. This is the first director-themed entry; the director in question is Joon H0-Bong, whose first two theatrically released features are tackled.
Director Bong’s debut is a strange film, and an ambitious one at that. The initial set up sees an out of work part-time college lecturer, Ko Yun-Ju (Lee Sung-Jae) annoyed by the barking of a nearby dog. He elects radical action, in which he decides to kill the dog, choosing to leave it abandoned and locked away in a cupboard in his tower block’s basement. As far as setting the tone with the opening scene, Barking Dogs Never Bite should be lauded; however it’s as early as that, that the films queasy relationship with animal cruelty raises its head. This is a dark comedy that may offend and definitely not one for dog lovers.
As for the story of Barking Dogs, it is hard to pin down. Bong’s debut is a film about how relationships with dogs tie people together. Whether it’s killing them, eating them, finding out who killed them, or what they represent to a pregnant woman, dogs provide the framework. The first thread sees a lecturer kill dogs, whether it is by bludgeoning them to death off screen, neglect or throwing them from the roofs of multi-story apartment blocks. The next stars recurring star of the director’s work, Byeon Hie-Bong (first sergeant in memories of the murder, the father in the host), as a maintenance guy who finds these dead dogs and cooks them. There is also a sub-narrative within this with someone credited as Shadow Man being much more hands on with his canine diet. The last features, Bae Doo-Na (The Host, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance) as Park Hyun-Nam, a young woman bored with her work and saddled with the responsibility to placing the missing dog posters around town.
As is typically the case with this vague mode of storytelling, the unrelated threads all have their own stories to tell. Eventually most of them start coalescing. Those leftover are there to inform the background. The convergence of barking dog’s stories isn’t achieved in the most seamless of fashions, but it’s accomplished enough to satisfy.
Barking Dogs Never Bite is more interested in the fleeting moments and the comedy therein. The pinnacle of which happens early on when Byeon Hie-Bong is telling a local myth of a murderer who was buried in a wall, which culminates in the emergence of the shadow man from a pile of dirty clothes and Yon-Ju running into a pipe knocking himself out. The way in which this scene builds up helps sell the pay-off. Other dark comedy efforts are confined to passing moments, whether it is a horribly cruel prank call, using toilet paper to settle an argument, or the over the top means that Yun-Ju goes to in his one man battle against dogs, only for it to be made redundant by his wife. The laughs carry Barking Dogs.
As far as using this debut as a gauge to view how the career of Joon Ho-Bong has developed, it comes through a multitude of levels. Whether it’s the recurring use of actors, the cinematography of inner city Korea, or the use of serious subject matter offset by moments of darkly absurd comedy. As an artefact to see where the director’s career began, Barking Dogs Never Bite is an interesting film. On its own merits, however, the film is lacking where it matters most and comes off feeling a little emotionally cold.
This is where Joon H0-Bong really emerged as a film making giant in Korea. Based on a true story, Memories of Murder follows the investigation of a spate of murders in 1986 Gyunggi province. Detective Park Doo-Man (Kang-Ho Song) and Detective Cho Yong-koo (Sang-kyung Kim) are investigating the murder through simple minded means or torturing the innocent. They neither have the technique, nor the resources to investigate the killings efficiently, hence resorting to such measures. They torture a naïve boy, making him believe that he guilty; it’s then when Detective Seo Tae-Yoon arrives from Seoul to help with the investigation. It’s not a spoiler to say so, as the reality of this crime is that the killer was never found.
The film is much more concerned with what these detectives have to contend with, with little technology, no outside help and poor forensic aid. Memories of Murder is as much about this crime as it is about a dark chapter of Korean history, emphasised by the complete inability of the police to capture the country’s first serial killer.
Bong does a formidable job of putting the viewer in the headspace of the detectives, the feeling of dejection and uselessness that they are trying their hardest to do this job, but they are neither provided with the support by the community or by their government. Crime scenes are chaos, teeming with journalists and locals flattening potentially vital evidence. Until Detective Seo Tae-Yoon arrives with his professional investigation skills from the city, the only figure Park trusts in his alleged infallible eye at picking out criminals just by looking at them, above anything scientific. Desperation can make anything seem like a reasonable option.
As the film opens, it’s hard to understand why policemen would torture a child who is mentally underdeveloped, planting evidence and coaching their innocent victims into providing compelling confessions. By the end of the film, it’s all too easy to understand. Thanks to the growing death rate, the lack of evidence and the difficulty they have analysing DNA. Kang-Ho Song and Sang-Kyung Kim are as committed as their screen counterparts. They’re extraordinary as men fully committed to and consumed by their profession.
In capturing the futility of the time, Joon Ho Bong has directed an unforgettable odyssey of emotional and professional gloom. However continuing on from his debut, Bong implements comedy into some of the lighter scenes, nothing as over-the-top as Barking Dogs. Nevertheless, the abruptness of the violence by Cho Yong-koo and its conflict with the description Kang-Ho gives him is as big as laughs come. Such scenes aren’t here to overturn the tonal and cinematic aspirations; they are here to provide shades to the character, to provide normality for the characters to lose all sight of. By the time the film closes and everything fails, it’s nothing less than heartbreaking.
That is exactly how this film should be read; the viewer should be emotionally affected, you should wish to see the criminal see justice, but you don’t. That investment as well as the director’s flair for character development, genre touches in the moments we see the murderer stalk his pray, all culminate in one of the great masterpieces of Korean cinema.