South Korea isn’t a country traditionally associated with animation, with only a few films like “Wonderful Days” or the recent kiddie flick “Leafie, a Hen into the Wild” having gained widespread releases. As such, “The King of Pigs”, the first feature from director Yeon Sang Ho, is immediately of interest, having won the DGK, Movie Collage and NETPAC awards at the 2011 Busan Film Festival and having screened at Fantasia in 2012 and in the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes. Though revolving around high school memories, the film is a very adult piece of animation, dealing with the darker elements of human nature and shining a harsh light on the often brutal hierarchies of Korean society. Having enjoyed success on the international scene, the film is now set to play UK cinemas as part of the Terracotta Touring Festival 2012.
The film starts off in shocking fashion, with 30-something businessman Kyung Min (voiced by Oh Jung Se and by Park Hee Bon when younger) sitting naked in his flat after apparently having strangled his wife. He receives a phone call from a detective agency he had hired, giving him the number of his old classmate Jong Suk (voiced by Yang Ik June, writer, director and star of 2008’s stunning “Breathless”, and by actress Kim Kkobbi as a child), who he has been trying to track down after being apart for 15 years. Jong Suk, a wife beating journalist and failed novelist, agrees to get together, and the two men reminisce about their schooldays, when they were seen as ‘pigs’, losers right at the bottom of the hierarchical system ruled over by the class ‘dogs’. The two had suffered greatly at the hands of bullies, until meeting another student called Chul Yi, who maintained that the only way to survive was to beat the dogs at their own game by becoming a monster.
“The King of Pigs” is dark, dark stuff, and despite its premise is nothing like the kind of violent revenge or nerd payback thriller that might be expected, Yeon Sang Ho aiming instead for something infinitely more bleak and troubling. Without wishing to give things away, the film goes to some very tough places, its opening scenes quite correctly suggesting that nothing is likely to work out well for any of the characters. Thankfully, all this grimness is held together by an engaging story and characters, Yeon managing to generate gripping drama and suspense and making good use of the flashback structure, skilfully jumping between past and present without ever feeling too manipulative.
The pigs/dogs metaphor is fitting, and though at times the film can be a touch heavy handed, its portrait of classroom hierarchy and the brutality of its regime presents an effective microcosm of Korean society. Men as beasts is very much the main theme, and though the film is focused rather than abstract, Yeon never offers any answers or even much hope, something which might make it a bit hard going and depressing for some viewers.
The film’s style is very far removed from the usual Japanese anime look of most Asian animation, Yeon having attempted to show more realistic faces and settings, albeit with more than a touch of grotesquery. The film was obviously a fairly low budget affair, and much of the animation is fairly simple, with basic backgrounds and limited, sometimes stilted movements, though this actually works well, making its sudden flashes of rage and violence more surprising and awful. Yeon also works in some pretty horrific visions and dream sequences, some of which are genuinely unsettling and go some way to further illustrating the damaged minds of the characters.
Though probably not for everyone, “The King of Pigs” is a highly accomplished piece of work and a rare example of truly adult animation in the strictest sense of the word. Harsh and hopeless, yet at the same time painfully human, it marks an impressive debut for Yeon Sang Ho and will hopefully lead to more of the same from the Korean industry.
Sang-ho Yeon (director) / Sang-ho Yeon (screenplay)
CAST: Ik-Joon Yang