South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho’s The King of Pigs is a harsh, bleak animated feature that looks at the terrible fate of three childhood friends who were bullied at school. The pervasive violence of the highly hierarchical South Korean society has been tackled in a number of films, one of the most notable being Yang Ik-joon’s gut-wrenching Breathless (2008), which The King of Pigs recalls to a certain extent in its unrelenting darkness and its atmosphere of absolute despair (interesting to note that director-actor Yang Ik-joon voices the character of Jong-suk in the film).
The King of Pigs opens as the bespectacled failed businessman Kyung-min, having apparently just strangled his wife in their high-rise city apartment, gets a phone call from a detective who has tracked down his childhood friend Jong-suk. A wife-beating failed writer, Jong-suk agrees to meet Kyung-min after 15 years in which they have had no contact. Their conversation in a restaurant leads to a number of flashbacks to their school years and the bullying they endured at the hands of older, richer boys. The animal metaphor of the title is used to describe the vicious hierarchical organisation of the school, and by extension, of Korean society: the ‘dogs’ are the boys from well-off families who rule the school and persecute the ‘pigs’, who come from poorer or less respectable backgrounds.
But this seemingly unchangeable brutal order is challenged when a boy called Chul comes to the defence of Kyung-min. Chul is a true outsider and refuses to be bullied into submission. In one chilling scene, he tells the boys, ‘you need to be a monster if you don’t want to keep living like a loser’. When he beats up an older boy, he becomes ‘the king of pigs’. Soon, he has a plan to make sure the ‘dogs’ can never have happy memories of their school days. But as Chul realises the complexities of the adult world he does some growing up, even though Kyung-min and Jong-suk still desperately need him to remain a ‘monster’ and recklessly stand up to the bullies.
The animal metaphor is somewhat laboured and heavy-handed in places and this is not helped by the terrible quality of the subtitles. The low budget is apparent in the lack of sophistication of the animation, which is quite stilted and not very detailed. But this is compensated for by a very expressive colour scheme, from the oppressive dark blues and muted tones that dominate the film to the rare luminous pink skies that punctuate the gloom. Also notable are a number of hallucinatory sequences: boys with dogs’ heads, a murdered ghost cat spitting out sardonic comments, a glue-induced nightmarish vision.
The King of Pigs is an uncompromising, hopeless depiction of a society corrupted by the idea of success as money and the brutal upholding of the hierarchical order it creates. Despite its flaws, it is an intense, riveting, affecting drama that delivers a truly shocking conclusion.
Watch the trailer: