Director Yeon Sang-ho’s debut feature animation, The King of Pigs, was made with a 150-million-won budget, yet achieved a triple crown at Busan International Film Festival, including the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) Award, Movie Collage Award and DG Director’s Award.
The film, with computer and hand-drawn animation, is purposely crude and rough, with plenty of graphic head-turning moments. It’s technically adept and highly cinematic in its storytelling.
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The King of Pigs is naked and unflinching from the beginning, which is of a female body strangled to death, in an apartment waiting for repossession, while Hwang Kyung-min (Oh Jung-se) has a shower after killing his wife. His middle-school classmate Jung Jong-suk (Yang Ik-june), a writer, whose reaction to a dressing down by his editor is to throw his fists at his girlfriend. Hwang calls Jung up for a reunion after 15 years of mutual silence.
As they knock back bottles of soju and reminisce about their middle-school days, the film recalls the bullying and brutality in flashback.
At their middle-school, the pupils fall into two groups: One group has it all–dogs, they are rich and smart. They rule the entire school and their daily routine is harassing other students. And the other group has nothing–pigs, they have no power, money or class. What they need is fake smiles and absolute obedience to their schoolmates who have all the power. Pigs exist only to be abused and humiliated by dogs.
Their stories of this period all focus on Kim Chul (Kim Hye-na), the one individual that stood up for them: the titular king of pigs.
Director Yeon doesn’t see his story as allegorical, however.
“Most of the episodes from the movie are drawn from my own experiences in middle school,” he told the New York Times.
The film’s provocative picture shows not only the brutal side of child’s innocence, but also creates a metaphor of South Korean society.
“Life is unfair, and that’s the reality,” he told the L.A. Times in an interview. “I just wanted to show what the current society is like.”
The subject matter is nothing new, but stories about bullies are usually handled as action films, fantasizing the loser as discovering bravery and finding the ability to fight back. This film doesn’t give its audience that kind of easy pleasure. The more the protagonists use violence, the closer they become to real monsters.
The King of Pigs can be brutal, with animation that is stark and vivid, occasionally relieved by fleeting moments of real beauty and painterly landscapes. It’s appropriate only for adult audiences.