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Barking Dogs Never Bite: Five Elements of the Bong Style

How Bong Joon-Ho's first film establishes his distinctive style

After Parasite (2019) made history at the Oscars, many western audiences became aware of South Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho for the first time. Others more familiar with his work knew that Parasite was just the latest installment in a series of genre-crossing, satirizing black comedies that make up his filmography. In this piece, I visit the first feature film of Bong’s illustrative career: Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000).

Sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes hilarious, and always quirky: Barking Dogs Never Bite tells the story of Yun-Ju (Lee Sung-Jae), a graduate student whose career has plateaued. His only path toward professorship requires a costly bribe, his marriage is deteriorating by the day, and his wife is pregnant with their first child. Emanating from somewhere in the apartment complex, the annoying barking of a dog drives him down a dark path to the edge of his humanity — where he must find his way back.

Although the film features all the rough edges of a first film, Barking Dogs is made undoubtedly in Bong’s hand. A closer examination reveals five characteristics of the auteur’s style that carried forward into his future work.

  1. Symbolic Character Blocking
  2. Lateral Action Shots
  3. Layered Action Framing
  4. Sudden Tonal Shift
  5. Straight-on Close-ups

I will analyze some examples of each technique and how Bong’s creative decisions enhance the film’s message and the viewer’s experience.

Symbolic Character Blocking

Yun-Ju’s strained relationship with his wife Eun-Sil (Kim Ho-Jung) forms the emotional core of the film’s narrative, and Bong utilizes character blocking to heighten the tension between them. In one of the first shots depicting the young couple together, a combination of lighting, positioning, and set design creates a diagonal line that splits the screen in two.

Husband and wife, visually at odds

With the table between them, Eun-Sil sits on the lit side, facing right, while Yun-Ju sits on the dark side, facing left and away. He cracks walnuts one-by-one with a hammer while his wife eats. The splitting of the frame and the contrast of light and dark helps establish their relationship: even visually, they are at odds.

In a later scene, when Eun-Sil brings home a toy poodle, the tension between them is shown again in a overhead shot of the couple in bed.

A husband desperate for his wife’s attention

In this shot, Yun-Ju’s body is crunched up, his hands between his legs in such a way that implies submission. He appears desperate for his wife’s attention, but Eun-Sil, who is transfixed on the poodle, lies with her back toward him. At this moment, their new pet adds to the existing strain on their relationship.

In a later shot near the end of the film, the couple has reconciled (I won’t spoil how), and a similar overhead shot is used to emphasize the improvement of their relationship.

A couple reconciled with the help of a toy poodle

With this shot, the young couple now sleeps facing one another, with the toy poodle snuggled between them. By using the overhead bed shot to depict the couple’s estrangement, then repeating it to depict reconciliation, Bong is able to capture the resolution of the conflict in a single shot—all while visually reinforcing the poodle’s role in saving their marriage.

Lateral Action Shots

Another of Bong Joon-Ho’s signature techniques is shooting movement that is perfectly perpendicular to the camera, and it is used to great comedic effect in Barking Dogs.

Lateral movement that evokes a classic cartoon chase

The image of one character chasing another through the hallways of the apartment complex provides enhanced comedic relief in its emulation of iconic cartoon chases such as in Tom and Jerry.

By making the movement entirely lateral, Bong detaches the audience from the events of the film and reinforces our position as the spectator. It is as if Bong uses the camera to say “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show,” and the show is made more enjoyable as a result.

Layered Action Framing

While shots displaying lateral movement intentionally remove depth, Bong also demonstrates a mastery of depth in other shots that split the action between foreground and background.

Take, for example, this scene when the old lady chases after an onion rolling down the street. What she doesn’t know is that the onion was let loose by Yun-Ju, who is using it as a distraction. With the old lady preoccupied in the shot’s foreground, Yun-Ju appears in the background to nab the old lady’s dog.

Old lady chases an onion; Yun-Ju chases a dog

This technique stands in contrast to the lateral movement technique: while depicting lateral movement removes depth and focuses the camera on the one action occurring on screen, the layering of action gives the audience a choice. One can choose to watch the lady chase the onion or the man chase the dog—the fact that both are happening within the same frame accentuates the hilarity of the situation and the comedic effect on the audience.

Sudden Tonal Shift

Of course, not everything is funny, and Bong Joon-Ho’s films have a tendency to cross genre boundaries, sometimes rather abruptly. Midway through the film, Bong utilizes a broken lightbulb to suddenly set the stage for a scary story about “Boiler Kim.”

The light bulb goes out, and it’s time for a scary story

By creating this darkness, then having the other man turn on his flashlight, Bong creates the lit-from-below effect on the janitor’s face reminiscent of camp-side ghost stories.

This is scary

We find out that, years ago, Boiler Kim was hired to fix the broken heating in the apartment complex, but a fight broke out when he accused the building developers of embezzling construction funds. Boiler Kim died in the scuffle, and the developers put his corpse in the wall and cemented over it.

Presented like a ghost story, this tale serves as a critique against the rapid development of South Korea. Boiler Kim exemplifies the honest, working man who suffered from others’ greed and fell victim as collateral damage to this capitalistic craze.

By employing this tonal shift, Bong is able to put the darkness in “dark-comedy” and strengthen the film’s social commentary—all while enhancing the audience experience with an added dimension of horror.

Straight-on Close-up

Aside from utilizing entire tonal shifts, Bong also builds tension in more mundane character interactions by using the straight on shot. Take, for example, when Hyun-Nam recounts her experience chasing the dognapper through the apartment complex.

Hyun-Nam confronts the camera

Hyun-Nam looks directly into the camera and recalls certain similarities between Yun-Ju and the man she chased. As she does so, the confrontational framing of her character enhances the moment’s gravity as she gets closer to realizing the dognapper’s identity.

Yun-Ju, evasive and ashamed

Yun-Ju also faces the camera straight on, but he averts eye contact. He does not want Hyun-Nam to know it was he whom she was chasing. As the film cuts between a confrontational Hyun-Nam and an evasive Yun-Ju, the frame progressively closes in on the characters’ faces to heighten both Hyun-Nam’s ostensible suspicion and Yun-Ju’s guilty conscience.

Conclusion

For any director of Bong Joon-Ho’s quirk and caliber, the first film can be most revealing. It is a work made before commercial or critical success, and it perhaps shows the director’s style in its purest (albeit less polished) form. Barking Dogs is an entertaining yet edifying film that establishes many of the formal techniques that would carry Bong to his present-day success.

“Once you overcome the one-inch barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films” — Bong Joon-Ho

If you can overcome the barrier of subtitles, consider watching Barking Dogs—or any of the other films in Bong’s esteemed filmography. You can stream the film now on Hulu.