Besides Japanese anime, The King of Pigs is the first full-length adult animation that I have seen. I certainly wasn’t expecting such a dark, demented and nihilistic vision of class and social relations in contemporary South Korea that grips from the opening shot to the final bleak shot of the concrete city. This is no dystopian imagining of a future yet to come, but rather a confrontation with the present as fully imbricated with the past and a condemnation of the brutality beget by social disfranchisement and economic failure in a society that privileges success and wealth above all else.
The King of Pigs starts with a slow panning shot of the broken body of a dead woman slumping over at the kitchen table – the brutal aftermath of a violent domestic murder by Hwang Kyung-min (Oh Jung-se), whose company has just gone under and who has lost everything – visually signified by the stickers on the apartment’s furniture and appliances. In The King of Pigs, violence is always perpetrated against those lower in the social pecking order: The rich against the poor, men against women and humans against animals who represent the lowest rung on the ladder and the most vulnerable. Financially and morally bankrupt, Kyung-min seeks out his old school friend, Jung Jong-suk (Yang Ik-june) in order to talk about their past and the events that led to 15 years of silence. In their middle school years, both Kyung-min and Jong-suk were classed as outsiders as a result of their lowly social class, called ‘Pigs’ by the privileged and wealthy in-group who were known as the ‘Dogs’. One day, a new student, Kim Chul (Kim Hye-na) transfers in and offers the ‘Pigs’ a way to combat the brutality of the Dogs. Yet the solution is as violent as the problem, with Chul, in a chillingly disturbing scene, stabbing a cat to death and encouraging the others to join in. Chul becomes ‘The King of the Pigs’, and encourages the others to take revenge against the other boys in the class. There is no redemption possible from this degeneration into primitive violence as signaled by Chul’s death at the hands of Kyung-min just as Chul is attempting to rebuild his life after his father’s death. Brutality begets brutality, violence leads to more violence, and the past is resolved in the present with another senseless death.
Critics have noted the similarity in theme with other texts about disaffected youth including William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Yet despite similarities, The King of Pigs is distinctively Korean and belongs to the socio-economic context in which it was produced as does Lord of the Flies. While the competitiveness of the South Korean education system has produced many horror films, together known as School Horror, starting with Whispering Corridors/여고괴담 (Park Ki-Hyeong) in 1998, it has mainly focused on the female experience and films tend to be set in single-sex girls’ schools – for example Roommates/ 어느날 갑자기 세번째 이야기, directed by Eun-kyeong Kim (the 3rd in the ‘Four Horror Tales’ series, 2006) which is set in a crammer school for girls who have not achieved the necessary grades to succeed in either obtaining work or continuing in education. However, in content and theme The King of Pigs bears more resemblance to the narrative of male brutality and disaffection of A Bloody Aria (구타유발자들; Won Shin-yeon: 2006) than female-orientated School Horror.
The King of Pigs touches on social inequality in South Korean society, an inequality which was predicated by the suffering of the working classes in the building of modern South Korea’s economic miracle. Further the film comments on the rise of domestic violence as a consequence of male disenfranchisement – something which has been noted in recent studies about the correlation between male unemployment and violence within the home. In an unequal society, oppression against those weaker, marginalized and ostracized flourishes – a reassertion of lost potency is gained through the activity of aggression. Jong-suk’s voice-over with which the film ends stresses the moral bankruptcy of late capitalism which is predicated on the survival of the fittest and which has no empathy for those who it sees as valueless and therefore as not fully human: “Where I am is the place that is covered by cold asphalt as ice and by bodies colder that it: it’s called the World.”
The King of Pigs is a gripping piece of contemporary cinema, beautifully animated with an almost photorealistic touch punctured with moments of surrealistic brilliance, and is without doubt one of the best films that I have seen this year.
The King of Pigs will be available on DVD next year, and is distributed in the UK through Terracotta Distribution who specialize in bringing cinematic gems from East and South East Asia to the UK. It is available to pre-order from Amazon: