Directors – Lee Choon-baek, Oh Sung-yoon – 2018 – South Korea – Cert. U – 102m
An abandoned dog falls in with a pack of wild dogs with whom he learns to survive – animated feature plays online from 2pm Friday, November 6th to 2pm Monday, November 9th, book here, from the Animation strand of the London Korean Film Festival (LKFF)
In a genuinely heartbreaking opening, a man drives out to nowhere, tells his dog he’s totally free and leaves him a big bag of dog biscuits. The man throws a tennis ball and while the dog runs to fetch it, he drives away. We pull out to vast landscapes, emphasising the dog is alone.
Before long, the dog Moong-Chi (voice: Do Kyung-soo) runs in to a pack of similarly abandoned dogs who are living in a derelict building which they share with the newcomer. That isn’t going to last though: a digger moves in to demolish it. Moong-chi must be rescued by pack member and small scots terrier Jjang-a (voice: Park Cheol-min) from the hunter, a cruel biker who catches and imprisons dogs for the sole purpose of breeding them for profit. As bitch Ba-mi (voice: Park So-dam, from Parasite, Bong Joon Ho, 2109) puts it, it’s a dog factory. It killed her mother before Ba-mi herself managed to escape.
Ba-mi is from a separate dog pack which comprises a couple, their puppy and herself. The two packs join forces and go on the road. As the dogs travel cross country in search of utopia, Moong-chi is briefly captured and released by the hunter, who fits the dog’s neck with a tracking device. So wherever Moong-chi travels, the hunter is going to be able to find him.
On their journey, as well as intermittently fighting off the hunter and companions, they cross an eight lane highway, hunt and kill water deer, fall in with a kindly human couple who run a dog sanctuary in an idyllic rural house and gardens and, finally, escape into a vast area of land fenced off by the army which seems to the dogs like paradise.
Moong-chi doesn’t talk until he meets the first group of dogs. The anthropomorphism is cleverly handled so that, although these are clearly meant to be naturalistic dogs, their talking never feels out of place. Indeed, there’s one dog who swings out of a tree on occasion clutching a Tarzan-like creeper but this gag – even though it goes against the grain of naturalism – never feels forced.
There are a number of sequences of dogs running and they feel quite natural. The sequence with the dog sanctuary couple features a genuinely pleasant song introduced by the man playing an acoustic guitar: again, it doesn’t feel forced. Flow is clearly one of the things directors Lee and Oh are good at… the film covers a variety of different moods, but manages to avoid all the ones so often associated with animation – there’s nothing saccharine or sickly sweet here.
The animation is not the most expensive or technically advanced you’ve ever seen, but again, the film makers marshal their resources skilfully and everything works well. As so often, this has a lot to do with script; this is a film that’s been well thought out on paper both verbally and in terms of visual design, layout and characterisation.
Numerous nice touches include the brief nod to Lady And The Tramp (Clyde Geronimi,Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, 1955) when two dogs come together over a piece of something resembling spaghetti. Indeed, Disney inspiration is evident in the notion of a pet cross country quest as in the live action The Incredible Journey (Fletcher Markle, 1963), although Underdog‘s overall view of life is less rose-tinted.
The film is fine for kids while at the same time never insulting the intelligence or trying the patience of adult viewers. It’s in Korean with subtitles, so your kids need to be able to cope with reading, but given that it’s a Korean movie this is how I personally would want to see it.
Underdog plays online from 2pm Friday, November 6th to 2pm Monday, November 9th, book here, in the Animation strand of the London Korean Film Festival (LKFF).
LKFF 2020 trailer: