In 2011, some friends and I were lucky enough to catch Yeon Sang-ho's animation thriller "King of Pigs" (2011) at a rather lonely independent screening house in Seoul. At the time the film was receiving a lot of positive feedback from those critics and fans that caught it, and since then it's become somewhat of a cult classic among animation cinephiles.
The film made its world premiere at the 2011 Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), and it was the first Korean animation to be invited to the Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately the film fell short of breaking even at the local box office (selling just 19,366 tickets), but Yeon's macabre masterpiece was perhaps never really destined for a box office Miracle. It may not have the universal appeal of "Leafie, A Hen Into The Wild" (2011), and it most definitely stands on the opposite side of whatever corner of "Pororo, The Racing Adventure" (2013) occupies, but it's great to see a top quality Korean animation come to the fold with something different and dark:
"Kyung-min, a businessman, and Jong-suk, a failed writer, are former schoolmates. During a reunion dinner they look back on their school days, when a particularly cruel group of students, "the dogs", exercised a reign of terror by hazing and bullying part of the other students, the "pigs". One day, Kim Chul, one of their mates, stood up to the "dogs", becoming the only hope of ending their tyranny. Fifteen years on, he remains a hero. But behind this figure, the two men recall the murky story of their bond".
In this scene, one of the main "pigs", the young Jong-suk voiced by Kim Kkobbi, is under some pressure from the swooshed shoe of a troublesome "dog". The image is a chilling example of the film's fatalistic commentary on class discrimination and violence. While the older Jong-suk and Kyung-min recall their vicious childhood, viewers are given unique insight into not only the stringent stigmas of class in Korea, but it also zooms in on one of most troubling statistics to come out of Korea-bullying and suicide. Among OECD countries Korea has the highest suicide rate and an alarming percentage of those individuals are young school children. Recently, in March, a 15-year-old high school boy jumped off of his apartment in the city of Gyeongsan. It was reported that he took his own life after absorbing two years of intense bullying and was the second youth suicide that month. So yes, "King of Pigs" does indeed deal with some sensitive issues found within modern Korean society, so be mentally prepared for it.
Interestingly, despite being largely set at a school, the characters in "King of Pigs" aren't exposed to the academic pressures Korean students face. Korean students are known to have some of the most intense study schedules in the world, and having taught there for a number of years I can tell you that this alone warrants more attention. The film seems to sidestep the issues to some degree, but I think Yeon injected enough depressants into this piece while still being able to imply this serious variable in youth suicide.
Both in the two friends' current lives, and during their school days, there is disturbing lack of reliable authority figures and role models. These two men have grown-up with a corrupt sense of morality in a world that has offered no course correction or real guidance. Like Golding's "Lord of the Flies", absent some form of social authority it's the group and its (mis)understanding of power and morality that prevails. In the film, Kyung-min and Jong-suk are "remembering" their childhood, and in that memory there exists little or no authority (such as a responsible teacher or parent). I think this is an important point in the film, because it is clear from Kyung-min's bloody mess of an adult life that there is a murky and dangerous history lesson to this tragedy.
Yeon Sang-ho followed "King of Pigs" with his 2012 short film "The Window" (voiced by Lee Hwan). His latest film is another animation thriller entitled "The Fake" starring Kwon Hae-hyo, Oh Jung-se, Yang Ik-june and Park Hee-bon. The film currently has no exact release date, but it's scheduled for release sometime this year.
- C.J. Wheeler (@KoreaOnTheCouch)
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