Social allegories in which characters are envisioned as animals are rarely warm and sunny affairs. From Animal Farm to Maus, it’s a technique used to emphasise the most brutal aspects of human nature. Korean animation The King of Pigs uses it sparingly for this harsh, unflinching tale.
Hwang Kyung-min is a failed businessman who has just killed his wife. He decides to meet his school friend, Jung Jong-su, who is a bitter, failing writer. They reminisce about their painful schooldays and how their friend Kim Chul stood up to the bullies to become the King of Pigs. But Kim Chul is more interested in being a monster than a hero and the three boys are set on a violent and tragic path.
Writer/director Yeun Sang-ho creates a grimly plausible world of classroom hierachy and absent parents. Hwang Kyung-min and Jung Jong-su are pigs who must take the punishment meted out by the dogs, who are the wealthier, respected bullies. Anything from standing out academically to wearing the wrong jeans results in ridicule or a beating. We’re shown in grim detail how the dogs keep the pigs bowed and oppressed.
That is until Kim Chul arrives. Principled and fearless, he comes to the two friends’ rescue and beats the bullies senseless. But when they spend time with him we see the circumstances that have resulted in Kim Chul’s fearlessness and how a young boy comes to be carrying a knife around. The fight scenes deliberately teeter between heroic and horrifying as we remember it’s children dealing out such brutality.
The film is tough, but there’s very little that doesn’t ring true. Some may find the more fantastical sequences jarring, others will feel that they contribute to the gruelling crescendo. The unrelenting misery may also prove too much for some but the film’s commitment to its theme is undeniably powerful. The animation is excellent and the superb voice cast (the three actresses voicing the young leads are particularly good) help to make this bleak vision hard to sit through, but even harder to forget.