Bong Joon-ho’s filmography establishes his mastery over filmic suspense. Though his films vary in format and genre, Bong (along with his creative team) wields an impressive dexterity in using film language to create visceral suspense––keeping audiences on the edge of their seats, drawing them into his dark and deeply funny worlds. Two of his films, the aforementioned debut Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) and his lesser-known short Influenza (2004), offer indelible lessons in suspense.
Lesson #1: Barking Dogs Never Bite
“What a nice day!” Ko Yoon-ju’s (Lee Sung-jae) voice narrates as we stare at a dense screen of green, trees slowly moving in the breeze. The camera flows down, racking the focus to reveal Yoon-ju’s figure. On the phone, he talks with a former colleague about his current unemployment when the yapping of a dog interrupts them, its high-pitched barks disrupting the calm of the outdoor breeze. Its barking seems to echo throughout the entire apartment complex, an incessant irritant for dog-hating Yoon-ju. After taking out the trash, he opens a door to his unit’s corridor, to meet a small fluffy shih tzu. Yoon-ju stares down at it, and it stares back. A tipper-tapper of jazzy drums commence, cueing us to pay close attention: what will Yoon-ju do? The camera assumes a dog’s-eye view; a ground-level shot looks up at Yoon-ju, tilting from side-to-side as if mimicking the dog’s gaze. Yoon-ju lowers himself slightly, reaching a hand out towards the dog––he is large and intimidating, even more so as the camera dollies backwards as he walks forwards. The puppy runs away, dragging its loose yellow leash behind. A cut to an extreme long-shot, a grid of the apartment complex: Yoon-ju’s figure miniscule as he races across one of the corridors.
Now on the roof, the camera follows Yoon-ju from behind, who trudges forward eyes to his feet. He stops and turns to face the edge. Bong’s use of sound, camera angles, movement, and edits has already riled us up, and we anxiously await what will come next. Yoon-ju pulls his plastic bag up to his chest––revealing to us that he has caught the dog. He wraps his hands around the stolen shih tzu and leans to peek over the edge of the roof. A hard cut: suddenly we look straight down the dozens of flights, cars parked below. Not a second later, a lemon-colored cord flies into the shot, its end slapping against the dull yellow walls. We instantly know the cord is the leash of the dog––Bong establishes this knowledge––and soon the dog appears in the shot, shaking in Yoon-ju’s hands. Our perspective changes so we can see Yoon-ju. He brings the dog to his shoulders as if to begin throwing it. Behind him we see an old lady enter the rooftop, though Yoon-ju is unaware. Tension crescendos. What if he throws the dog; what if the lady sees him; what if the dog dies. He lurches forward but stops mid-throw. We hold our breath. He scrunches his face, closes his eyes and––thud. The old lady behind him throws her mat down on the floor. Yoon-ju becomes aware of her presence and the dog is saved.
In just four minutes, Bong captures an incredible moment of suspense. And in a later scene, he compounds this tension, mirroring the aforementioned scene. Park Hyun-nam (Bae Doona), the apartment complex’s bookkeeper, and her friend and toy-store owner Yoon Jang-mi (Go Soo-hee) go to the roof for a smoke. They stand side by side, as Hyun-nam looks out into the distance with a pair of toy binoculars. She spots Yoon-ju on the other side of the apartment. We take on her perspective, the shakiness of her binocular view showing us a familiar image: Yoon-ju holds (another) dog over the edge of the roof. Quiet drums enter our soundscape, soon joined by the bright timbre of violins, which rise in intensity as the scene rolls out. Once again, we must relive the suspense of the earlier scene––the same what-ifs pop into our heads: what-if he actually throws the dog this time? Yoon-ju brings the brown chihuahua back to his chest, and for a moment we believe he won’t be able to throw it––Bong has primed us to believe so. But a second later and our worst fears are met: Yoon-ju takes a step back and hurls the dog into the sky. In an instance of utter horror and ridiculousness, the dog falls to the ground in slow-motion. Hyun-nam drops her binoculars in shock. Bong knows how to make his audience uneasy (and leave them in suspense), but he is also a smart storyteller, and understands how audiences consume movies. And this is ever so clear in his film Influenza.
Lesson #2: Influenza
Influenza (2004) is a 30-minute short made for an anthology (“Digital Short Films by Three Filmmakers”), along with work by directors Gakuryū Ishii and Yu Lik-wai. Bong begins his short with a statement: “The images used in this film were captured by the large numbers of observation cameras and CCTV security systems found in Seoul.” This establishes a tension fundamental to the images themselves: we never know what we are seeing is “real” or not. Though we could infer from Bong’s work in fiction that the characters that appear before us are actors, he never explicitly tells us that they are. So the images taken on an uneasy blend of the real and the made-up, leaving us in an acute state of suspense that, in the words of Jake Mulligan “raises and even dramatizes [the] question [of which people in the frame are ‘in on it’]”.
The film follows Mr. Cho’s (“Cho Hyuk-rae”) descent into crime, beginning with an establishing shot at Yanghwa Bridge. The CCTV image is low-res black and white, the details lost. Mr. Cho is indistinguishable in size and form. A white circle points him out to us with a caption: “Cho Hyuk-rae / male, 31, the unemployed.” Our habituation to seeing surveillance images only in the context of crime and violence––perhaps popularized by TV news––skews our experience of CCTV images. The very fact of surveillance imbues the images with an undercurrent of tension.
Mr. Cho’s life is chronologized through surveillance, divided into sections with the following intertitles: “2001 Mr. Cho Works Hard,” “2002 He’s So Hungry,” “2003 His First Action,” and “2004 Daily Routine”. Of the many CCTV videos, only one uses actually camera movement. Taken at the Geonyeong Apartment underground parking lot, the camera’s automatic motorized pan sweeps back and forth across the scene it surveys. A car pulls up into a parking spot. A man exits, carrying with him a cardboard box. Mr. Cho and his accomplice sneak up behind him, hitting him with a metal pole. The camera doesn’t stop for them, and in its omission of the action, the scene’s suspense is heightened. Bong understands that suspense is all about knowledge––for viewers, seeing is knowing. The CCTV’s incessant panning denies us sight. Each time we are allowed to see, we anticipate tragedy. Bong meets our anticipations with violence.
**Influenza (2004) and Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) are available to stream on the Criterion Channel. Barking Dogs Never Bite is also available to stream on Hulu.