Review: The King of Pigs (2011)

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Unflinchingly brutal and visually arresting, Yuen Sang-ho’s animated film The King of Pigs — the director’s first feature — definitely made an impression. It scooped up three awards at Busan in 2011, was invited to screen in the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes in 2012, and this year’s Sydney Film Festival programmed it as the first Korean film ever in competition. Where I missed out on it.

So, I was delighted to see that KOFFIA had programmed it as well this year, and in a Friday night double-bill with 2003’s cult smash Oldboy, no less. It shares a common setting with Yoon Sung-hyun’s contemplative film Bleak Night (also at this year’s KOFFIA), but where that film shows us a quiet, dreamlike view of a tragedy at high school, The King of Pigs snarls and spits, more angry than anguished.

The film begins in violence, showing us a man showering, having just murdered his wife in a dark, empty-looking apartment. He’s failed businessman Kyung-min, bespectacled and ordinary-looking. He makes a phone call and sets out later that evening to meet his best friend from school 15 years prior, Jong-suk, now a frustrated writer ghostwriting other people’s autobiographies. The two men, both with broken adult lives that they hide carefully from each other, get together for a great many drinks and begin to reminisce about middle school, which was evidently not a cakewalk for either of them.

The titular pigs, as Jong-suk outlines in a moment of dark childhood introspection, are the kids from the wrong side of the tracks, unable to do anything but act as metaphorical food for the “dogs”. These are the jeering bullies from wealthy families, seemingly running the school along stratified, hierarchical lines, cracking down hard on anyone else who succeeds a little too much or steps out of line. Crybaby Kyung-min and quiet, penniless Jong-suk are mercilessly bullied, and there seems to be no escape until the arrival of new kid Chul. Chul’s situation at home is even more desperate than the other boys’, but he’s got a feral, confrontational nature, and it’s to him that the two boys turn for protection and support.

The King of Pigs has a point to make about social class in Korean society, and it’s as sharp as one of Chul’s pocket knives. Yuen fills his story with anecdotes from school life that have a familiar (albeit uniformly doleful) ring to them, presented with the kind of imaginative hyperbole that animation lends itself to. In tone and in style, it occasionally reminded me of Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, though it stays grounded in one reality for the most part.

This is a seriously impressive film, despite its relatively small budget (about US$150,000), and those who can handle its black-as-night tone will find it complex and rewarding, though perhaps not “fun”.

The King of Pigs has one more screening at KOFFIA 2012 in Melbourne on September 8 — see the festival website for full details.

8.5 glowering teenagers out of 10.
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