BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Korea, take three.

GEORGE LUCAS, I think, infamously once said that the way to make an audience feel emotional was to choke a kitten on-screen. It wouldn’t work for me, that’s how much I fall on the dog side in the perennial cat vs dog debate. So it was a good thing Barking Dogs Never Bite opened with a warning stating that no dogs were harmed in the making of this film. Though I was slightly dubious as the film progressed, as a bunch of ratty looking dogs were thrust over balconies, cut up for soup or threatened with hanging. However my canine concerns aside, the film ultimately is a free-wheeling satire, a dark comedy, and a sharp take on Korean social stratification and gender roles.

The film was made in the middle of the Korean economic crisis (or the IMF crisis as it’s known in Korea) where the IMF, in an interesting parallel to contemporary banking concerns, provided monetary relief to the Korean government – provided the government didn’t bail out the country’s collapsing banks. This meant many ordinary people lost their life savings, jobs and homes all in the name of free-market capitalism (needless to say, the current bailout of banks by the Western nations, is being received rather coolly at the moment by a number of Koreans). I say this by way of context: the economic gloom pervades the film. The characters are petrified of losing jobs, the widespread gloom and dissatisfaction acting as a deep subtext to the narrative. Therefore, it’s not really surprising to see cleaners being excited to find dogs to eat, homeless people stowing themselves in apartment blocks, or long-time workers losing their jobs because of pregnancy and being paid $13,000 as a retirement package.

But the story is kick-started by Yun-ju’s (Lee Sung-jae – the baseball player in Attack the Gas Station!) frustration over a neighbouring apartment’s dog. He’s an unemployed university graduate, looking to try and get a professorship. The only problem is that he needs money to bribe the dean, and his wife doesn’t seem to care (a rather unconvincing character – her eventual rehabilitation doesn’t quite ring true given her previous status as a dragon lady). His paths cross with Hyoen-nam (Bae Du-Na), a bored, miserable, deeply empathetic worker, who provides the film with its real emotional heart. Bae Du-Na (Linda, Linda, Linda, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, The Host) is such a watchable actress, and she perfectly captured the character’s down-to-earth slackerdom, appearing without make-up or glamorous clothes in what was, apparently, rare for Korean female actors.

Rather than dogs, it’s Korean society that feels the full-force of Bong Joon-ho’s frustration, and provides the thrust for the black comedy on show. He managed to incorporate a number of widespread concerns and genres into the mix, that it’s of no surprise that he went on to make the family melodrama/allegory/monster-movie The Host. The corruption, the pettiness and overall cruelty of the system provokes these desperate reactions from the characters, and there’s a real empathy even with the dark oddballs and one-note figures. But it’s the system which is it at fault: only Hyoen-nam by the end manages to stay out of it all too – the subversion in the ending lies in her refusal to bargain with the game, while Yun-ju’s advancement forces him to feel the full force of the tacit admission that he’d made to become a part of it all.