A good year for Bong Joon Ho (if, perhaps, nobody else on the planet) concludes with the first appearance on these shores of Barking Dogs Never Bite, this revered filmmaker's eccentrically original feature debut from 2000. What's now obvious is that a lot of the qualities for which Bong became revered were in place from the get-go: the gift for offbeam, socially attuned black comedy, the precise framing and mastery of screen space, the delight taken in twisty-turny plotting. There are hints that this plot may have originated closer to home than later conceits; its startpoint is one any frustrated, underemployed twentysomething creative may recognise. Having nothing much else to occupy his afternoons, sensitive, bespectacled Yun-ju (Sung-Jae Lee) is driven to such distraction by a neighbour's yapping dog that he embarks on a kidnap mission, with an eye to silencing the mutt for good. Naturally, that mission quickly goes awry: I fear some petlovers will already be on edge at the idea of a Korean film that puts dogs front and centre, and that's before a scene of insinuated pooch strangulation that makes one grateful for the "no animals were harmed" disclaimer Bong inserts, with a degree of knowingness, in the opening credits. Cinephiles will be reminded that Bong emerged from the same scene as the take-no-prisoners, since-cancelled Kim Ki-Duk, who caused the British censors such conniptions with his treatment of fish in that year's The Isle; if Bong's filmography has proven some measure less extreme, it's nevertheless retained the wicked edge he demonstrates here when Yun-ju shapes to fling a chihuahua off the top of a tall building.
What develops is the model of a (if you will) shaggy dog story, elevated by strong secondary characterisation and incidental detail. It's a showcase for Bong the screenwriter's evident love of storytelling: the doggy intrigue is put on hold so a pal can inform Yun-ju about an acquaintance who met a grisly fate on a subway platform, and a janitor can regale a dining companion with talk of a "legendary" boiler repairman who wound up in an unexpected resting place. Whenever we return to the A plot, what's notable is the joy Bong takes in throwing obstacles in his protagonist's path; every time Yun-ju thinks he's turned a corner and got away with his bloodier misdeeds, another problem presents itself. It's as if he's on a lead being tightly held by his creator, the Barbara Woodhouse of world cinema: Bong lets this dweeb run for a bit before yanking him decisively back. What at first seems a tale about one dog proves to be one about three, each passing floof a mocking rebuke to any ideas Yun-ju might have developed about himself as a righteous avenger or criminal mastermind.
If the characters weave an unusually tangled web - sniffing out and circling round a slacker-turned-tenacious pet detective (future Wachowskis fave Doona Bae), that oddball janitor, and the anti-hero's pregnant other half - we always know where we are. Bong makes inspired use of his primary location - a screenfilling housing block with corridors that map the contours of the plot, and unfinished business in the basement that points the way forward to Parasite - while loading every frame with odd, eyecatching imagery: cracked walnuts, scrolls of paper, bloodied snouts. (He gets a big laugh from a close-up of a recalcitrant strawberry.) The miracle of this career - borne out when Jane Fonda revealed the name of the Best Picture winner back in February - is that Bong's films have expanded in budget, scope and appeal without any sign of overreach or losing the sharpness of focus present here. I suspect that, back in 2000, buyers didn't quite know what to make of this newcomer, or a film loopy enough to replay the sombre man-bites-dog material of that year's festival sensation Amores Perros as a goofy caper - one reason we didn't see it at the time. Twenty years on, it's plain to see: here's a filmmaker who, right from the start, knew how to spin a yarn, and how to take that narrative line for brisk, invigorating walkies. Good boy.
Barking Dogs Never Bite is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.