The King of Pigs: Film Review

Busan Film Festival
An angry, hard-edged animation on school bullying.

Ugly, pitiless, and mightily provocative in its representation of human debasement, this satire on class inequality burns like acid.

BUSAN, South Korea – A shocking tale of teen violence that’s as allegorical in its animalistic imagery as Lord of the Flies and Shohei Imamura’s works, The King of Pigs announces the arrival of a raw, dark, adult-oriented genre of independent animation in Korea that has hitherto only made as shorts. So far, Japanese manga and film arguably cornered the market on school bullying, but Yeun Sang-ho’s screenplay-direction stands out by situating it within the particulars of Korean society. Ugly, pitiless, and mightily provocative in its representation of human debasement, his satire on class inequality burns like acid.

A bright festival career should be followed by ancillary specializing in animation, plus potential for crossover to Asian genre territory.

Naked and unflinching from the get-go, the establishing shot of The King of Pigs is of a female body stabbed to death, in an apartment waiting for repossession, while the protagonist Hwang Kyung-min (Oh Jung-se) has a shower after killing his wife. We then meet his middle-school classmate Jung Jong-suk (Breathless director Yang Ik-june), a writer/newspaper columnist, whose reaction to a dressing down by his editor is to beat his wife to a pulp.

Hwang calls Jung up for a reunion after 15 years of mutual silence. As the two losers reminisce about their school days, one is transported back to an environment of even more oppressive hierarchy and Neanderthal brutality. The pupils fall into two groups: dogs, meaning those from privileged families and pigs who are the downtrodden underclass. Pigs exist only be abused and humiliated by dogs, whose tyranny is fully condoned by the teachers.

The arrival of transfer student Kim Chul (Kim Hye-na) completely disturbs the status quo. Not a docile pig bred to be butchered, but a wild boar that will not tolerate being fenced in, he believes in fighting fire with fire. Like the delirious interim following a peasant uprising to dethrone the ruling class, Hwang (Park Hee-von)’s and Jung (Kim Kkobbi Flowerain)’s lot can hold their heads high for the first time.

The level of violence and gore is on a par with what genre buffs are used to seeing in Korean action or revenge films. In fact, it is even more graphic and stylized in animated format. However, it is not an artistic exercise. Pain is represented as something very real, enough to make one wince. The method Kim uses to train Jung and Hwang to fight back is a seriously disturbing stomach-turner but it also effectively demonstrates how cruelty, especially picking on someone or "something" weaker, dehumanizes one in the process. 

The King of Pigs captures many subtle class gradations in Korean society and shows how it corrupts human interaction. Interestingly, the one act of bullying that really breaks Jung’s spirit is not physical but mental, and springs from his ignorance about brand name fashion.

The ending turns the tables on whatever previous impression the audience has developed about the three boys. It reveals a misanthropic, nihilistic view of the world. Yet in spite of the fact that the protagonists don’t elicit much sympathy, the protagonists’ family problems as well as their fragile alliance are still affecting in their poignancy.

Technically adept and highly cinematic in its storytelling, the $150,000 production proves that it is still possible to produce quality animation with a modest budget. Sketched in stark, masculine strokes on a somber, dusky color palette, the human figures are made to look distorted and beastlike. It is as if their malice and misery have seeped into their facial features and are refracted as a snarl, a burrowed eyebrow or clenched teeth.

Venue: Busan International Film Festival
Production companies: KT&G Sangsangmadang presents King of Pigs Production Committee, co-produced with Studio Dadashow

Sales: Indiestory Inc.
Voice Cast: Yang Ik-june, Oh Jung-se, Kim Hye-na, Kim Kkobbi Flowerain, Park Hee-von.
Director-writer-editor: Yeun Sang-ho
Producer: Cho Young-kag 
Editor: Lee Yeun-jeong
Music: Eom Been
No rating, 97minutes.