The King Of Pigs (Dwae-ji-ui wang)

Korea (2011) Dir. Yeon Sang-ho

When his business goes bankrupt Hwang Kyung-min inexplicably flips out and kills his wife. In trying to run away from his problems, Kyung-min tracks down his old school friend Jung Jong-suk, a failing writer who also seems to have anger management issues, beating up his wife for having dinner with another man. When the two meet up, they reminisce about their school days, revealing a life already fraught with history of violence.

This shocking story and graphic tale of schoolyard bullying may have some of its visual edge softened through being an animated feature but don’t take this to mean it doesn’t pack a disturbing punch. The violence is just as “real” as opposed to what we classify as “cartoon violence” as we might see in Tom & Jerry or The Simpsons – or rather the impetus behind it is very real and relatable for some.

The King Of Pigs also stands as a shocking indictment of the bullying problem in Korean schools which over the past few years has finally become a publicly addressed issue, even though its origins come from a dream writer/director Yeon Sang-ho had about two friends committing suicide.

The school our two leads attend runs on a hierarchy system where the wealthier and more studious pupils are better treated and given leeway for their actions, thus they adopt a lofty attitude which they believe gives them the right to rule over their less fortunate classmates. With a typical thug like mentality, these “dogs” as they are known, they get angry when one of the “pigs” has the temerity to stand up to them.

Enter Chul, a quiet kid you steps in when Kyung-min is being teased by Min and gives the bully a good hiding. Kyung-min and Jong-suk decide to team up with Chul, relaying on him for protection. But as Chul’s reputation grows the situation becomes more dangerous and tragic for all concerned.

This isn’t a film that has any pretensions of proffering any answers or solutions to this global and age old problem. It simply highlights it in its most graphic and ugliest way it knows how and hopes the message has significant impact to open enough eyes to address the issue and stamp it out.

The main observation is that bullying and violence is everywhere and not just limited to school kids; the big problem is when the victim snaps and fights back. The law being what it is, the more extreme action will incur the greater punishment, even if self defence or retaliation is the motive. Violence begets violence and two wrongs don’t make a right.

In the flashbacks, the three bullied leads come from impoverished and lower classed families each with their own problems. Kyung-min’s father runs a karaoke club which is also a knocking shop, and earns the youngster extra bullying attention. Of course, their teachers – who encourage the caste system to “control” bullying – are regular visitors.

Jong-suk has a mother who works her socks off to provide for the family, an idler father and a spoiled sister who throws tantrums whenever she wants the latest fashions or accessories and when she doesn’t get her way she steals. Chul’s father dies early on and his mother is one of the working girls at the karaoke club.

This doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Korea, both its education system and the adult life for underachievers, then again the slew of incredibly violent films that have come from Korea over the past decade or so have already made this point for international audiences. This is the first time – to my knowledge at least – that it has involved school kids (outside of horror films such as Whispering Corridors) and certainly the first one in animated form.

This medium allows for some unique flights of fancy to illustrate the various mental states of the cast, particularly Chul, who takes to sniffing glue during his expulsion from school, or Jong-suk’s pangs of guilt after their “initiation” of sorts with Chu is to stab a feral cat to death, the ghostly apparition of which haunts the tortured lad.

Unlike Japanese anime – which no doubt many people will compare this to, or even erroneously label it as such – this is a very much an exercise in social commentary and Sang-ho Yeon is intent on shocking the viewer into submission with his depiction of what it purports to be a sordid truth of life.

The social class differential is a popular central conceit in such tales and in this instance Yeon uses this snobbery and resultant oppression to explain the rage that builds up in the bullied lads, with a shocking twist in the final act which turns this on its head. It’s a deeply unpleasant and unexpected way to end the tale but its extreme nature is certainly in keeping with the rest of the film.

The budget for this film is quite modest and the animation in places reflects this, with stiff moving characters whose lips barely move, but it should be applauded for the characters having Asian faces rather than the usual compromise found in Japanese Anime. The fights scenes however are convincingly brutal and free from any exaggeration such as bodies flying through the air or crashing through walls.

Yeon doesn’t shy away from showing the effects of the violence in their most graphically accurate form. The voice cast features some well known names in Korean indie cinema including Yang Ik-june, whose own film Breathless is a pulverising expose of violence in Korean society. The vocal performances are exceptional, with the actors wringing every emotion viable out of themselves for maximum verisimilitude.  

If ever proof was needed that animation has transcended being a medium solely for children’s entertainment and still provide works of substance and social import then The King Of Pigs, in all its horrific and harrowing glory, stands as a prime example of that. Unpleasant but compelling viewing all the same.