The Price of Money: Boon Joon-ho's Barking Dogs Never Bite

A quote says, “there are some things that money can’t buy, like manners, morals, and integrity.” But will the opposite work? Can we “buy” money by giving up morals?

Boon Joon-ho’s film Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) explores this possibility by telling the story of an aspiring college professor, Ko Yun-ju, who struggles with his career and life. The film’s first shot is Yun-ju appreciating the nature view that his cheap apartment faces. He is unemployed because he despises the behavior of bribing the dean with $100,000 to get the professor’s position. Nevertheless, as a man with ambition and is desperate to prove himself in the society, this shortcut is undoubtedly appealing. When Yun-ju is torn between borrowing money to bribe the dean and keeping his meritoriousness, the barking dog that disturbs him whenever he thinks about his career path becomes the only issue he can control himself. Hence, he kills the dog – which does no harm but bark – to demonstrate that there is something in his life that he can make an immediate decision about and take action to achieve his goal. This is the first time Yun-ju gives up his morals to escape his incapability to fight the corrupted world. Yun-ju carries the vicious cycle of determining others’ life and death, just as what he experienced in the society.

Yun-ju eventually bribes the dean and gets his dream job. He gives up his morals and obtains the position. The film ends with him fading into darkness when his student covers the view of nature outside the window with the curtains before class. The nature outside becomes a luxury that Yun-ju can’t afford anymore as he used to have every day. Yun-ju shows that you can buy money with morals, but your freedom is an additional inevitable price. It is also ironic that the position Yun-ju commits in this dirty transaction is a college professor, who is supposed to represent and enforce social order and justice.

However, if we consider Yun-ju’s life from a realistic perspective, he has a job that can make more money to provide a higher living standard for his family. He won’t be ordered by his wife anymore but have her respect instead. More importantly, his social status as a college professor will also satisfy society’s expectations on males and solve his anxiety as a home husband. Isn’t this a win?

The film also presents the tradeoff between human’s desire for money and morality with other characters. Hyun-nam, the bookkeeper and custodian of the apartment that Yun-ju lives in, experiences the opposite situation. Although she has a stable job, she is unsatisfied with her life as she dreams about getting famous by being on television. Therefore, the story of the missing dogs excites her with the possibility of being a hero in the neighborhood. Hyun-nam’s dissatisfaction with her ordinary career leads to her desire for surprise and freedom in life. She represents the impossibility of people buying emotional achievements with money and shows the jejune lifestyle that people without money dream of. Eventually, she loses her job as she is not focusing on her work. When Yun-ju loses joy after he sacrifices his freedom for the job, Hyun-nam can go hiking with her friend, which she dreamed about when she was working. But again, if we take a step back, Hyun-nam’s freedom is only temporary. She cannot sustain her life without a job and has to give her freedom back in exchange for the money.

The homeless, who eats the dogs in the neighborhood, is another character Boon shows the conflicting costs and benefits of life. For the homeless, ethics is a luxury idea to consider. All that matters is being able to survive. By eating the dogs and secretly living in the apartment’s basement, which the vast majority find immoral, the homeless can have a great meal with meat and a safe place to live. Food and housing are the top priorities that people would buy when they have money. But when money is a scarcity, freedom, danger, and dignity are nothing but his only asset to trade for a higher quality of life. Although he ends up being caught, he explicitly says he is excited about his life in jail as he won’t worry about food and house anymore. The homeless carries the fundamental concern about which way to trade money and freedom is more beneficial and pushes the audience to think if keeping a moral standard is indeed helpful in a desperate life.

Boon made the film when he was 30, and this is his first feature film. The conflicting and torn perspective towards using unjustified ways to achieve one’s goals is also a display of Boon’s struggle with exploring justice in the world at that age. Boon shows compassion when criticizing the characters’ decisions, leaving it to us to judge if they have made a better deal between money and freedom.

When the world is dark, should we light up a fire, or should we just close our eyes and sink into part of the darkness? And when the immoral darkness is monetarily beneficial, should we accept it? Are we making the social codes and moral standards the lights or another unseen trap in the darkness?


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