[INTERVIEW] 'Nureongi:' US producer digs deep into Korea's dog meat industry with unbiased lens

[INTERVIEW] 'Nureongi:' US producer digs deep into Korea's dog meat industry with unbiased lens

Kevin S. Bright, director and producer of the documentary, “Nureongi,” poses with his two dogs ― Hope, left, and Oscar. Both animals were rescued from Korean dog farms during his first visit to the country in 2017. Courtesy of Just Bright Productions

Dogs are dogs and there’s no difference between pet dogs and ‘meat dogs,’ says Kevin S. Bright

By Park Han-sol

It was one hot summer day in 2017 in Korea when Kevin S. Bright ― a producer and director whose long list of works includes the mega-popular American TV show, “Friends” (1994-2004) ― was invited for lunch at none other than a “bosintang” (which, in English, translates into a traditional soup for replenishing a weakened body with nutrients, but is more widely known as dog meat soup) restaurant.

It was his first official meeting with the people from the Dog Meat Association after he contacted them for his documentary project on Korea’s dog meat culture ― one that he explained would be unlike any other films made about the country’s long-standing custom before.

The members of the association suggested that he try the soup. This must be a test, he thought, to see whether or not he was sincere about making an “unbiased movie.”

“If I was going to make this film, I had to do it,” Bright said in a recent Zoom interview with The Korea Times. “I needed to at least try dog meat to be able to know what I was making a film about.”

That lunch became the first and only time he ever tried dog meat.

[INTERVIEW] 'Nureongi:' US producer digs deep into Korea's dog meat industry with unbiased lens

An official poster for the documentary “Nureongi” (2021) / Courtesy of Just Bright Productions

This is how Bright was able to gain the trust and full cooperation of the Dog Meat Association for his latest documentary, “Nureongi,” which explores Korea’s age-old debate on dog meat culture ― a dying yet still contentious tradition that coexists ironically with the country’s growing pet culture, in which dogs have become Koreans’ favorite companion animal.

As of Sept. 9, three months after its premiere on YouTube, the one-hour-long documentary has garnered more than 657,000 views.

Bright first heard about the culture of dog meat from his friend Tami Cho Zussman in 2016, who serves as the film’s protagonist and executive producer. She runs the DoVE (Dogs of Violence Exposed) project with his wife Claudia Bright, where they rescue dogs raised for meat from Korea and find good homes for them in the United States.

“What I knew about Korea at that time was that it was one of the top economies in the world and very famous for having one of the top educational systems in the world,” Bright said. He started wondering how the dog meat culture was situated in such a society and felt that he had to witness it in person himself.

When the director arrived in Korea a year later, he realized that there were mainly three groups in regards to the dog meat industry: pro-dog meat groups, activist groups against its consumption and a large segment of the population who knew nothing about the industry.

[INTERVIEW] 'Nureongi:' US producer digs deep into Korea's dog meat industry with unbiased lens

Animal rights activists take to the streets in Insa-dong, central Seoul, to protest against dog meat consumption. Courtesy of Just Bright Productions

In fact, there was a lot of confusion and conflicting information about dog meat, even among Koreans themselves ― whether it was legal, how many dogs were slaughtered annually, how many dog meat farms there might be in the country and whether their purported health benefits were true.

Part of this lack of public knowledge comes from the fact that the dog meat trade lies in a legally gray area in Korea. Dogs are not recognized as “livestock” under the Livestock Products Sanitary Control Act, which stipulates the requirements for the raising, slaughter and distribution of livestock meat; therefore, their slaughter remains unregulated. But once their meat gets to the restaurant, the animals are considered “food” by the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Moreover, of the approximately 10,000 dog meat farms located in the country, more than 7,000 are unsanctioned by the government and are often located in distant, mountainous regions, making it difficult for municipal governments and district offices to conduct regular inspections.

“As a storyteller, I saw a really good story here. And I was very curious how things were going to turn out over the next several years in terms of dog meat’s place in contemporary Korean society,” he said. “I really did make this film for Korea. Any place else where the film is shown is secondary.”

This objective is made obvious from the start with the movie’s title ― “Nureongi.” The name, meaning “yellow dog” in English, refers to a common mixed-breed dog often raised for their meat in Korea. Even if it’s difficult to understand or pronounce for those outside of Korea, the title had to first and foremost resonate with Korean audiences.

The most important focus of “Nureongi” was to remain unbiased, however difficult that might be, by being respectful to and presenting both sides ― that of animal rights activists and that of dog meat industry representatives ― so that it didn’t simply turn into another form of “Korea bashing.”

The production team conducted interviews with over 70 different individuals over the course of four years, from 2017 to 2020: members of the Dog Meat Association, dog farm owners, dog meat vendors, medical experts, a folklorist, a professor of nutrition, animal behavior specialists, lawmakers, animal rights activists and ordinary passersby.

During the live Q&A session held on Aug. 10, joined by Bright, Zussman and editor Eric Won, the three explained that there were 22 different edited versions of “Nureongi,” including ones with a much more emotional and dramatic tone than the final released version. But such elements of drama were sacrificed for the sake of remaining neutral.

“[After reviewing the rough cut] I found many cruel [and graphic] scenes and initially thought that the movie was excellent, because in my mind, anyone who saw these scenes would for sure feel sympathy and compassion for the dogs,” Zussman recalled.

When Bright pointed out instead that the film appeared one-sided and suggested that changes be made for more balanced representation, her immediate reaction was to object. However, she came to realize that this impartial approach was ultimately the right path for the documentary to take.

“It’s very tempting to show things that could affect a person’s opinion one way or another,” Bright added. “But we were very careful that every point made in the film had a counterpoint that was equally represented. [The goal was to] make absolutely sure that when Koreans saw this film, they felt like they got the whole story.”

This effort to bring an unbiased perspective to Korea’s dog meat tradition and culture differs significantly from a large number of existing narratives that have focused heavily on dissecting the issue from an ethical standpoint in terms of animal rights and welfare. Some have even brought in celebrities from other countries to reinforce their argument.

“I think one of the mistakes that’s been made by some activists, when they’re trying to present the case against the dog meat, is they bring in famous actors from America or from Europe. And I think this is very offensive to the Korean people, because they really have nothing to do with it.”

[INTERVIEW] 'Nureongi:' US producer digs deep into Korea's dog meat industry with unbiased lens

A nureongi puppy confined in a cage in a small dog farm in Korea looks into the camera. Courtesy of Just Bright Productions

One way “Nureongi” diverges from these narratives is through its portrayal of those involved in the dog meat trade from a complex economic standpoint.

The film features two relatively small-scale dog farm owners in Gyeonggi Province, each raising some 200 canines on their property.

When asked if he has a family to support, Lim Won-sop, who has been in this business for more than a decade, answers shamefully, “I do, but I can’t see them because I don’t make any money. [I haven’t seen them] for years now.”

This feeling of dog farm owners being trapped by their own businesses was echoed by Park Hee-man: “I can’t stop this business now. I have to make a living… I’m over 60. What am I going to do if I stop it?”

Although the dog meat trade is said to gross between 250 and 500 million dollars annually in Korea, according to industry experts, the documentary highlights the fact that economically distressed farmers like Lim and Park, who have no other viable means to make a living, make up the majority of those in the industry.

“When you’re talking about the Dog Meat Association, you’re talking about the top earners in the dog meat industry, who have farms with literally more than a thousand dogs. But what you also see in the movie is what the majority of dog farmers are like ― those who have 200 dogs or less and are living in poverty,” Bright said.

“It’s because they have nothing else to fall back on. Places with those dog farms, like the one in Namyangju, are not good places to grow crops. So it’s a matter of what they can do with that land to make money. It’s complicated.”

Another subject addressed in “Nureongi” that doesn’t typically emerge within the discussion of dog meat culture, especially in the West, is how the criticism of such culinary practices is sometimes used as a justification for racism and discrimination against Asian communities.

When former soccer player Park Ji-sung played as a midfielder for Manchester United, the European fans in the stadium would often chant: “Park, Park / Wherever you may be / You eat dogs in your home country.”

“It’s not just Koreans that are stereotyped like this. It’s all Asians. So this stereotype is very powerful and it needs to go away,” the director said. “A lot of it, I think, was reinforced after World War II, with GIs coming home and saying jokes about dog meat.”

He added that besides Korean and other Asian players, this derogatory chant at soccer games would sometimes target “any country they consider to be a ‘third world country'” ― a team from Africa, for example.

[INTERVIEW] 'Nureongi:' US producer digs deep into Korea's dog meat industry with unbiased lens

Activists and volunteers from Korea Animal Rights Advocates (KARA) prepare kennels to rescue more than 200 dogs kept in the Namyangju dog farm. Courtesy of Just Bright Productions

But, of course, the film also doesn’t shy away from pointing out the apparent problems that currently plague Korea’s dog meat industry, namely, the horrifying living conditions of the so-called “meat dogs.”

Thousands of unsanitary small farms are characterized by buzzing flies, overpowering odors, carcasses piled up in a corner and days- or weeks-old food waste prepared as dog food.

Most cages, with up to five dogs cramped inside each pen, are above-ground style with no covering at the bottom, so that their feces can drop to the ground for easy cleaning. But even that is rarely done in some facilities, causing the piles of excrement to overflow into the cages.

“Nureongi” also questions the morality of electrocution, which has become the main method of slaughter for farmed dogs rather than the previously more common methods including hanging, beating, boiling or blowtorching ― all of which have been outlawed since 2007 under the Animal Protection Act.

In fact, the most shocking scene of the entire documentary is that of the electrocution of a dog, filmed in one take. The slaughter was actually captured on camera at the suggestion of the Dog Meat Association, who claimed that it was an “instant process with minimal pain inflicted on the animal.” Although Bright decided to show just ten seconds of this graphic shot, which lasts for almost a full minute in reality, its emotional impact lingers for much longer.

“They’re basically being fried from the inside out,” he continued. “I think that for any humane person to watch the whole thing is cruel. I feel like I would be punishing you. I put just enough in so that you definitely got the idea that this was not painless, that this was not a proper way to slaughter a livestock animal.”

[INTERVIEW] 'Nureongi:' US producer digs deep into Korea's dog meat industry with unbiased lens

A man walks his dog in Namsan Park in Jung-gu, central Seoul, in this Nov. 5, 2018, photo. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

The most important message Bright aims to convey through the film is that the argument put forth by those in the dog meat industry, namely that there is a difference between pet dogs and meat dogs, is simply not true.

“Pet dogs and meat dogs are the same. There is no difference,” he said, explaining that there is no evidence that dogs raised for meat are somehow inferior or only suitable as livestock.

In order for Korea to move forward with the age-old debate on dog meat, steps should be taken in building a social consensus regarding the continuation or demise of the industry, Bright explained, emphasizing that the decision is ultimately up to Korean people themselves.

“Only the Korean people can decide about the legalization of dog meat, or the end of the dog meat industry. That’s not for me to decide. I don’t get a vote in that. I just present the facts and the rest is up to the Korean people,” he said during the live Q&A session in August.

Practical governmental policies that can help dog farmers immersed in poverty transition to new means to make a living through retraining programs, as well as that find ways to repurpose large-scale dog meat farms with other functions that could be positive for Korea, would be other major steps forward.

Starting with a screening scheduled to be held in a Los Angeles theater at the end of this month, Bright hopes to continue showing the film across other cities in North America with large Korean communities ― including New York City, Chicago and Toronto.

The director is also open to the idea of making a sequel to “Nureongi.”

“If it (the issue of dog meat trade) really heats up, I’m coming back. If it looks like it’s on track for an actual vote, an actual referendum, I would definitely be back for a follow-up,” he said.

The documentary, “Nureongi,” is available for free on YouTube. A free screening in a theater in Korea is scheduled to take place next month, with the date yet to be determined.

[INTERVIEW] 'Nureongi:' US producer digs deep into Korea's dog meat industry with unbiased lens

Producer and director Kevin S. Bright / Courtesy of Just Bright Productions

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