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Would you empathise with a puppy-muncher? Documentarist examines the dog-eating culture of Korea: the good, bad and poochy - from the 32nd edition of Raindance

You read the title correctly: this is war. No, it’s not some sort of war between two rival canine families, or a Shakespearian requiem, but a documentary about dogs being served as food in Korea. This project is largely narrated by combat veterans who will do anything to rescue their “pals” from kennels, cages and plates, while the footage charts their successes, misfires and personal moments of reflection.

Dog War is as harrowing as The Man With A Thousand Faces (Sonia Kronlund, 2024; also showing at Raindance) in that it shows an uglier side to human society, but it’s the stronger of the two features because it is richer in resolve and ambition. Director Andrew Abrahams would be forgiven for pandering to a European sensibility – audiences nominally refer to dogs as pets in this part of the world – but chooses to look at the complexities that surrounds the issue. Through an impressive array of voiceover and images, the project reveals that pooches have been a Korean appetiser for centuries; why should they stop now?

Countering this argument are Korean talking heads who have come to regret their penchant for “dog soup” considering the way they are treated. And then there are the bravado-soaked Americans who remember the kitchen knives pointed in their direction whenever they set out to liberate the animals. The duo are chased away by a woman who shouts, “Free animals in your country,” highlighting the geographical and racial nature behind the conflict.

Interestingly, Dog War raises an interesting point: what right do these Americans have coming over to free these pets? From an Asian perspective, it smacks of imperialism, re-branded as an act of philanthropy. It’s an assault on their intellectual and cultural heritage, matching violence with uber-aggression. Nevertheless, there are women in the feature who rescue stray dogs, patching them back after years of trauma and abuse.

One of the retired soldiers remembers his anger when he watched a dog die outside his childhood home: “I knew one day I could [protect dogs].” In some ways, this determination resembles a vow; a crusader swearing fealty to a higher power. What Abrahams depicts is a brawl between doctrines based on capitalist ideals, and a heritage that spans another continent entirely. Uncomfortable viewing, sure, but it’s a story older than time.

Wisely, Abrahams lets the story play out, and while it’s easy to speculate on his personal philosophies, it never enters the screen in an overt fashion. But only the stoniest of hearts won’t squirm at the footage of puppies trapped in one cage, their eyes beaming at a parent who may be taken out and killed. Static the camera lies on the animals: no flourishes, no closeups, nothing but nerves. Dog War doesn’t wave a flag for veganism, but it may convince viewers to re-consider their opinion on the subject.

Adding to the confusion comes the voice of an average worker who fears his livelihood will be taken if the protestors get their wish, and criminalise his chosen area of career. The feature opens on a gaggle of people crying at the sight of animals brutalised behind cages. Signs are upheld; tears are drawn. Like every battle ever fought, there won’t be any victors at the end. Only less despondent losers.

What Abrahams has presented isn’t a perfect documentary – some of the musical cues are vaguely misguided – but it is a very effective one. By the time Dog War closes, it allows the viewers to carry on the dialogue in their own way, and in their own time. And as is the nature in life, the answers won’t be the most pleasant to get to.

Dog War premieres in the 32nd edition of Raindance:

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