Before his film The Host smashed box office records in Korea, Bong Joon-Ho made this witty and quirky gem, which is set in an apartment complex in Seoul. The protagonist is a lecturer living on a meager income while the permanent position he prizes goes to a colleague who bribes the Dean. His frustrations are intensified by the constant barking of a neighbor’s dog, and the plot unfolds when he decides to take out his bitterness at the injustices of his life against the small pet.
The film is set in a Korea that is sorting itself out from the Asian financial crisis. The rapidity of the country’s modernization is conveyed by a wry, slightly menacing custodian, who relates a most unusual ghost story about a selfless boiler repairman. His culinary preferences drive home the class divide, as middle class people give their pets food that is of higher quality than what many working people can enjoy. Consumer desire clashes with the rule of law, as the apartment dwellers violate the rules of the complex to keep dogs in the first place.
Bae Doo-na, who played the archer in The Host, is marvelous as an earnest book-keeper who yearns for a life more significant and dramatic than the one she has. The sequence in which she rescues a poodle is handled with warm humor and real fear at the same time.
Although Bong’s later films are more virtuosic in formal terms, as well as thematically more substantial, nevertheless I find that Dog of Flanders (the title in Korean) leaves a stronger impression, in large part because Bong is so adept, even in this early work, at handling a variety of emotional registers at the same time. He works through understatement in which the emotions and moods of one character are displaced onto another, but reality remains as plausible as it should be. Sometimes a little girl in a yellow raincoat is just a little girl in a yellow raincoat.