The inherent darkness and cruelty of youth is not an alien concept to Asian filmmakers. The Japanese have provided two excellent examinations of the escalating brutality of out-of-control school children with the gore-soaked cult hit Battle Royale (2000) and 2010’s Confession. South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2004) also told of the repercussions of childhood malice, and now Yeon Sang-ho has joined the party with his debut animation The King of Pigs (Dwae-ji-ui Wang, 2011). The story of two sheepish classmates searching for an escape from constant bullying is an interesting, if flawed, exploration of anger, violence and idolatry.
Flat broke and decidedly unhinged, businessman Hwang Kyung-min calls up floundering writer and old chum Jong-suk somewhat out of the blue. They meet for dinner and over their meal begin to reminisce about their school days. This is no nostalgia trip, however, but a voyage back to their dark and troubled adolescence. In a classroom operating a strict and hierarchical status structure, Kyung-min and Jong-suk were the pigs at the bottom of the pile, molested and humiliated on a daily basis Until, that is, the mysterious Chul intervened to defend them, resulting in a perilous relationship that defined not only their friendship, but more importantly, their lives.
The pervading murkiness of Sang-ho’s narrative is echoed in the grey-green tones of the animation, as Chul becomes something of a guardian angel to the two victims, taking them under his wing. The only way to deal with dogs like those that terrorise them, he preaches, is to become even more evil than they are. His rage and anger not only see him severely beat the bullies, but also inspire sadism in his loyal disciples as cruelty inescapably begets cruelty. In bringing to mind serious and relevant questions about bullying, abuse, idolisation and the impressionability of children, The King of Pigs throws an awful lot at the audience, though without providing much reason for it to stick in the memory.
The animation is also somewhat of a mixed bag. Some innovative ideas – such as the simulation of handheld camerawork to bring immediacy to the violence – are undone by the film’s strangely stilted style. Regardless of whether there are reasons for it, the visuals are peculiarly empty, and their lack of vibrancy results in the disconcerting feeling of an unreal world. Fantastical moments are enjoyable but few and far between; the best examples being a drug-induced laughing fit and a ghostly apparition that is part Cheshire Cat, part Shakespeare’s Banquo.
Ultimately, The King of Pigs has intriguing ideas littered throughout its story and visuals but is not, regrettably, able to pull these together into a piece as thought-provoking or powerful as it could have been. Still, for those spellbound by modern Korean cinema and animation in general, Sang-ho’s film may still be worth seeking out for evaluation.