Country: South Korea
Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Writer: Sang-ho Yeon
Stars: Ik-Joon Yang, Jeong-se Oh, Hye-na Kim
Ever since Korean cinema went global during its modern renaissance, the nation seems to have set itself to the task of assuming mastery over the kind of cinema which embraces darkness, shocking brutality, and forcing its audience feel as uncomfortable as possible. And by the gods are they doing a good job of it.
The King of Pigs is a prime example of this unflinching exploration of the unpalatable side of human existence, bouncing from tense unease to brutally shocking throughout. Almost every scene is drenched in an unsettling quiet angst, building a sense of doom it is difficult to pull away from until you know for sure where it ends. This constant tone of sadness and torment makes the film almost entirely unbearable for the casual viewer but for those intrigued and stimulated when confronted by the stark realities of the world it holds a strangely gripping and hypnotic quality right up until its bitter and deeply deflating conclusion.
So settle in and prepare to strip away another layer of your thinly stitched together sense of humanity – the world is a shitter!
Following a disturbing introduction to his character, the unstable businessman Jong-suk seeks out his old friend Kyung-min following 15 years of estrangement. Over a few beers the two men reminisce over their school days and the tough upbringing they endured together. Through flash backs we learn about the harsh environment of their South Korean school where children have created a strict social hierarchy based on family wealth, dividing everyone into the ruling ‘dogs’ and the subservient ‘pigs’, a sad development of a capitalist society based entirely on the pursuit of wealth.
At first the adults seem strangely detached and oblivious to this organised regime which is efficiently and brutally enforced by the oldest students all the way down to the youngest, but soon we learn how the teachers are bribed by the rich parents to ensure their child’s status as one of the elite “dogs”. Those unable to pay must leave their children to suffer a life of abuse at the hands of their wealthy peers whilst the teachers dish out yet more punishments to the always guilty victims.
Into this cruel and deeply unfair system comes Chul, another unfortunate soul doomed to life as a pig but one that is willing and able to fight back against his tormentors. As Chul takes Jong-suk and Kyung-min under his protection he is welcomed as a much needed hero and ray of hope but his struggle against such a corrupt system does little to improve life for our tragic protagonists. Instead of being their salvation Chul teaches his friends the futility of their situation and reveals to them the disturbing secret behind his strength and bravery in one of the most shocking scenes of the film.
As one grim reality is stacked upon another the recollections of the two men descends into an inescapable pit of misery and torment with little respite. There is virtually no humour or characters providing comedy relief. This is the Scum of the animated world.
While the animation is not up to the slick standards of modern Japanese anime, when considering the small budget, the most has been made of the limitations. The colours and individual frames often look beautiful but any character movement is awfully cumbersome and puppet like. The Korean style has some of its own character but imitates its richer Japanese cousin in many aspects; most notably through the obvious animation short cuts taken such as static backgrounds and motionless characters. There is an extreme economy of movement throughout which can see entire scenes unfold with barely more action than an occasional blink or an ever so slight readjustment of a characters face.
Though the lack of a stellar budget is obvious at times, and there even some suspicions of a slight amateurism to the animation, it still manages to pull off an excellent job of drawing the viewer into the world and accepting these characters as painfully human, perhaps owing to the excellent voice acting. The facial expressions of the characters are particularly well drawn having a much more exaggerated style than Japanese anime with every line and wrinkle drawn to communicate a persons anguish and pain. There’s no escaping just how much these savage events are affecting the people involved.
What may be lacking in the finer points of animation is more than made up for by the high standard of directing and acting familiar in Korean cinema. Though occasionally it may have gone a little over the top with the anguish and tragedy it was always deeply affecting and unfailingly shocking.
So if The King of Pigs is not entertainment to be ‘enjoyed’ then what’s the point exactly? It is an uncomfortable window into a reality shared and suffered by many in this world and exposes a painful truth to those who have been fortunate to escape it, or just wish to not acknowledge it. Presumably the significance for the South Korean audience is even greater in confronting and dealing with what appears to be a poisonous and neglected social problem which as gotten out of hand and may stimulate the push for change.
Serious stuff then.
Though it may not entirely succeed in all of the technical aspects as an animation it certainly does as an engrossing, soul shattering, and oddly hypnotic experience.