Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The new directorial debuts The Broken Hearts Gallery and Antebellum have us thinking back on some of our favorite first features.
There’s a delectably ironic poetry to the recent arc of Bong Joon-ho’s career. Having established himself in his native South Korea, the guy makes a move on Hollywood with a pair of largely English-language features boasting some of the biggest movie stars on the planet, both of which get warm receptions without making too much of a dent in the mainstream. He returns to Asia, scales back for a vicious comedy closest in spirit to the polarizing debut he’s already disowned (“Please forget it, it’s a very stupid movie”), and somehow scores the biggest hit of his life. The globe-straddling blockbuster and award-gold supermagnet that is Parasite gets so much from 2000’s Barking Dogs Never Bite that it starts to feel like Bong’s ultimate flex, his proof that his early ideas were only waiting for a larger platform to be hailed as genius.
Though in terms of square footage, his first film dwarfs his most recent. In this instance, class resentments simmer at a rising boil not in a multi-level home but in a massive apartment complex. The cramped, low-income housing is home to out-of-work academic Ko Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae), who busies himself with a mission to locate and silence the pooch driving him insane with its yapping. After he accidentally kidnaps the wrong pup, loses the nerve to fling it off the roof, brings it to the basement for a hanging, loses the nerve for that too, inadvertently kills it anyway, and then sends the right dog plummeting to its death, building manager Park Hyun-nam (Bae Doona, recent favorite of the Wachowski sisters) resolves to track down the pet-snatcher. Most movies wait until the end credits to assure us that no animals were harmed in their making; Bong would rather we have that information upfront.
A mordant sense of humor bridging the sadistic and the slapstick—one chase scene sees our characters zipping across outdoor corridors in increasingly wide shots; it is pure Looney Tunes anarchy—is far from the only thing connecting the current bookends of Bong’s filmography. A pivotal moment gets photographed in slow motion, with beads of light coming in and out of focus, and later on, billowing clouds of pesticide gas provide a canny metaphor for how the state regards the impoverished. The most twisted scenes transpire in basements, where the true rejects from society (such as the in-house janitor scavenging all the dead dog meat for stew) can engage in the degraded behavior that economic need forces on a person. From his earliest efforts, Bong had clear eyes about the insidious way that the desperation of scarcity can turn us into tense, resentful, guilt-ridden versions of ourselves.
By the time that Barking Dogs made it to video for Western markets in 2010, Bong was identified with a Korean New Wave of filmmakers steeped in the gruesome. His contemporaries Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook, and Kwak Kyung-taek had shocked audiences around the world with innovative deadpan violence through the ’00s, and that enfant terrible aspect expectedly colored impressions of a film mostly about canine torture. But while there’s no shortage of puking, decapitations, and other content that the weaker-stomached might label “extreme,” posterity has freed this film from its niche. It looks less like an overseas novelty and more like a key phase in a major artist’s development, as he introduces the concepts he’d pursue through the following decades. Here, liberated by a still-evolving sense of discipline, he brings a winning abandon to his career-long broadside against capitalism. Future films would showcase the great precision of control that Bong could exert over the moving pieces in his domestic games of cat and mouse (and dog). Before all that, however, he was free to cause a looser and wilder variety of mayhem.