Thirty-something Hwang Kyung Min is crying in the shower, leaning both his hands on the mirror. All the belongings in his apartment have little red labels on it, confiscated. His wife sits motionless on the chair, her head flat on top of the table. Her eyes are wide open—she has just been strangled to death. Kyung Min’s cellphone rings, he walks naked to his bedroom and picks it up. The man on the phone says he has acquired the phone number of Jeong Jong Seok, Kyung Min then writes it down.
Jeong Jong Seok is a failed novelist and is now ghostwriting an autobiography. His boss skims through his work and being unsatisfied, loudly berates him. At home, he tries to call his wife and yet she doesn’t pick up any of his calls. When she comes home, he accuses her of cheating on him. He grabs her hair, slams her to the ground and starts kicking her, all the while cursing non-stop.
Kyung Min calls Jong Seok, asking to meet him. After 15 years of no contact, the men meet again. Apparently they used to be good friends back in middle school, and the film takes us back and forth, alternating between the middle school days and the present day when they are reunited.
The boys are classmates, and placed way low in the pecking order. Two bigger boys who come from richer families rule the class, but themselves are pawns for even more powerful boys in another class. Both Kyung Min and Jong Seok are slaves to the bigger boys’ whim, easily hit or humiliated, until one day a classmate named Kim Chul stands up for them. Nobody ever pays attention to Chul and out of nowhere he suddenly enters the boys’ lives. Chul can beat the bullies to a pulp without blinking an eye, and the two boys would then sometimes come to find protection behind his back. But Chul is something else. Something that the boys can’t quite grasp their minds around. “What makes us human is the evil itself,” he says. “To gain power, we have to become evil. If you don’t want to be an idiot, you gotta become a monster.” He pulls out a knife and stabs a cat he’s been tethering, over and over again. Its screeching fills the room, it twitches, barely alive. He then passes the knife to Jong Seok, who mimics him, stabbing the cat numerous times until it eventually dies.
We know that both Kyung Min and Jong Seok don’t exactly grow up to be respectable adults. Taking a look back to their younger days we come to understand their backgrounds, what shaped them, and how the adults are not exactly model members of the society, as we can see from the boys’ parents and the absence and failure of the teachers, who shamelessly exploit their perks as the authority and neglect the wellbeing of their students. We find ourselves so intrigued by these characters, despite the incredibly disturbing images that director Yeon Sang Ho keeps feeding us, which include surreal imageries such as a talking, sinister cat or a laughing corpse.
A film like The King of Pigs is not exactly popular in its native country. It shows the dark side of the Korean society, the desperate middle-to-low class members of it, the afflicted males, the palpable misogyny. But that’s exactly one of the things I admire the most about South Korean cinema. South Korean filmmakers don’t hold back in criticizing their own society, they express their frustrations brazenly in their works, sometimes up to the point that it becomes uncomfortable for the viewers. Shin Su Won’s Pluto deals with the failure of the Korean educational system and the bullying that exists in schools, and The King of Pigs also shows some obscene bullying. Of course it’s not fair to conclude that school violence happens in all schools all over the country, but sometimes we have to admit that the world can be such an ugly place, and the bullying director Yeon Sang Ho portrays in his movie actually comes from his own experience, things he really witnessed back in school.
The movie reminds me a lot of Yang Ik Joon’s Breathless (2008), and there are sure some similarities. In fact, Yang Ik Joon and Kim Kkobbi, who star in Breathless, voice the adult and young Jeong Jong Seok, respectively. Like Breathless, The King of Pigs shows the unforgiving patriarchal and hierarchal system of the Korean society, how they breed depression and desperation among the middle-aged men in the country. Capitalism sure fails to cut them some slack either and class discrimination exists, separating people into different castes based on their wealth and social status. The Koreans become what they have become not because they are a bunch of mentally disturbed people, but because they have so much anger in them, anger that is an inevitable result from what the society demands from them. It’s an evil cycle of life that some people seem to be unable to get out of. “The guys who live a good life without doing much, they’re like pet dogs. They’re motherfuckers. And we’re the pigs that they feed on.” says Chul.
There’s nothing remotely kind in this gruesome movie. From the very much ominous beginning you are prepared that it’s not going to be a walk in the park. Moreover, adding to the gruesome story is the ugly figures and the grim, dark backgrounds. Well, a higher budget might have helped the movie, which shows very stiff movements and limited facial expressions—this might be the movie’s biggest weakness. Another thing that sticks out is the fact that the younger versions of the three protagonists are voiced by female actors, as opposed to the bullies who are voiced by male actors. Sometimes I wonder if the director wants to express something by doing this, but according to an interview* he only said “The voice of an adult man would not sound right and if performed by children it would be difficult for them because of difficult phrases.” Anyway, maybe the low budget helps. The grotesque imagery adds another layer to the already hideous characters. Even the last act of the movie doesn’t offer any catharsis. On the contrary, it reveals even darker, more disturbing secrets you wish you haven’t just witnessed.
We tend to cover our imperfections. The world demands us to always put a mask on, bury our flaws out of sight. Not many countries are willing to show their monstrousness to the world and yet South Korea, at times, boldly does. The King of Pigs is a forceful and unforgettable outcry to the unforgiving oppression of society.
Yeon Sang Ho’s latest animated feature The Fake is going to have its world premiere at the upcoming 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.