On the surface, The King of Pigs looks like another tale of teen violence that involves older kids tormenting meeker, defenseless juveniles. While this is true, it is also a South Korean animated genre flick that tells an adult story not meant for children. Lurking beneath its animated veneer of human debasement is its correlation with society as a whole, particularly the privileged and the downtrodden.
Like a cross between George Orwell’s Animal Farm and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the animal imagery is distinguishable between the older and younger children. The “pigs” in the film’s title are the underclass, the oppressed. “Dogs” are the privileged, the oppressors. If this were S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, they would be The Socs. In our current state, they would be the one-percenters.
At the onset we, as viewers, are in a state of confusion. The establishing shot is of a woman’s body, her face in shocked surprise, head resting on a kitchen table. Upon further inspection her eyes are unflinching and it appears her neck has been cut with a cerated instrument. In the bathroom, the story’s protagonist Hwang Kyung-min (voiced by Oh Jung-se) is naked, showering and crying. He has killed his wife. The next character we meet is Kyung-min’s middle-school classmate, Jung Jong-suk (Yang Ik-june). An aspiring novelist working as a newspaper columnist, Jong-suk has a woman problem as well, in the form of physical violence to his girlfriend as the result of being emasculated by his editor boss before arriving home.
Out of the blue Jong-suk receives a call from Kyung-min. The two were friends during middle school but have maintained a mutual silence for fifteen years. Reminiscing about their childhood results in flashbacks to a bygone era most can identify. School is a microcosm of the real world, of cliques, groups, and caste systems. Yet here we are presented two separate entities: the dogs and the pigs. Both Kyung-min and Jong-suk are pigs because they were born into the underclass. Daily they are abused by the dogs (the privileged), and the teachers and school administrators condone their tyrannical behavior.
The balance of power shifts with the arrival of transfer student Kim Chul (Kim Hye-na), who looks strikingly like a young Angelina Jolie despite being a boy student. A pig like Kyung-min and Jong-suk, he is not a portly swine like the rest, but is instead a ferocious boar and fights back when pushed hard enough. With Chul’s bull in the china shop behavior, both Kyung-min and Jong-suk, and the rest of the pigs, can lead right for the first time without fearing the dogs. However, Chul’s behavior, including one vicious act of savagery with a knife, has a resounding effect on his two friends that would define both their legacies.
The King of Pigs is bleak and depressing at times, but its brutal depiction of violence and animated gore should go over well with the Fantastic Fest faithful in attendance. This is business as usual for South Korea, a country that has a strong reputation for revenge-filled works of cinema. Though, the bullying gets on the repetitive side in the second act.
Costing approximately $150,000, the animation is artistic despite its limitations, producing startles and surprise when serene moments get graphic. This is especially true of Kyung-min and Jong-suk’s rite of passage inside Chul’s domicile. Let’s just be thankful that Pigs is animated or PETA may have been infuriated.
Yeun Sang-ho, who pulls triple duty as writer, editor and director, acknowledges that combating cruelty with another form of cruelty is a dehumanization of one’s class to another. And his film is ripe with allegory about the gradations of Korean society. Something as simple as the ignorance of brand name fashions or material possessions can be a far-reaching effect on the individual than kicks and punches.
By the time the film wraps we think have a clear idea of these three boys and their place in the world. Chul is by all means “The King of Pigs,” but what does that mean for Kyung-min and Jong-suk? Yet the last five minutes changes the complexion completely by vivisecting that nostalgia trip to show a pair of current-day misanthropes – unsympathetic misanthropes at that – and how the malice they endured as middle-schoolers has bolstered their miserable existence in a harsh reality.
Director: Yeun Sang-ho
Writer: Yeun Sang-ho
Notable Cast: Yang Ik-june, Oh Jung-se, Kim Hye-na, Kim Kkobbi Flowerain, Park Hee-von