This year, the Federal government nearly reinstituted funding for horse beef inspections, but opponents prevailed in the eleventh hour. As a result, the lucrative Canadian and Mexican horse slaughtering concerns will carry on without American competition. Everyone likes Mr. Ed, but the horse beef for human consumption does not hit most Americans on the same visceral level as dog meat. Many Koreans feel the same way, but there is still a tradition of dog cuisine that some in the older generation still cling to. Obviously, opinion is mixed, but nobody is more conflicted on the issue than Lee Kwang, the homeless protagonist of Kim Joo-hwan’s short film Retriever, which screens during the 2016 Third Culture Korean American Film Festival New York (Brooklyn).
Lee is a despised and marginalized Chosonjok immigrant, an ethnic Korean from China. You could say he eats thanks to dog meat cuisine, but he does not partake himself. Every few months, Lee snatch-and-grabs a rescued stray from a provincial pound to sell to a back-alley dog butcher. He assumes a big golden retriever like Bori will fetch a nice price, but when his regular buyer lowballs him, Lee keeps him out of spite. Much to his surprise, Leee quickly bonds with Bori. He even works off the cost of vet bills when the dog gets sick through his own negligence. However, parents and dog lovers should be strongly cautioned—viewers should absolutely not get too attached to Bori.
Let’s just say Retriever is not The Lady and the Tramp or Lassie—think more along the lines of Old Yeller, but even darker. We will see how dodgy-borderline legal dog butchers go about their business and it is even more brutal than halal slaughter. This is definitely a film that stakes out a clear position in Korea’s ongoing dog meat debate. Yet, it has just as much or more to say about man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.
Moon Sun-yong is pretty darn devastating as the desperate and degraded Lee, forcing the empathy out of even the most guarded viewers. Of course, it is really and truly Max and Joon, appearing in tandem as Bori, who lower the emotional boom, just like W.C. Fields could have told you. The melancholy vibe is even further enhanced by the classically moody cinematography of Nils Clauss and Jung Jin-ho’s pensive light-chamber music score.