THE KING OF PIGS (2011)
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Run time: 1h 37m
Bleak, angry and utterly uncompromising, this animated view of hierarchical high schools delivers a relentless break-time punch to the stomach
By Trevor Treharne
Some general viewing advice for The King of Pigs is to have a loved one available to hold you once it is finished.
This is not simply a thematically challenging, violent film with little joy. This remarkably difficult watch has a rage and melancholic essence which seeps from every pore.
There is hardly a character in the film not brimming with rage or drowning in terror.
Despite this description seemingly designed to put you off The King of Pigs, it is an endorsement of the emotional power of the film, one that is taking aim at a societal structure which privileges some and boots others to the curb.
In the wake of his business failing, Kyung-min (Oh Jung-se) kills his wife in a fit of rage and then decides to reconnect with his best friend from middle-school Jong-suk (Yang Ik-june).
Jong-suk also finds himself struggling, working as a ghostwriter for an autobiography, his job hangs by a thread while he dreams of writing his own novel. He is similarity lashing out at his girlfriend for his failings when Kyung-min calls.
After a 15-year hiatus, the pair meet to discuss their time in adulthood and the old middle school days, presented to us as a series of flashbacks.
Classified by their wealth at school, the pair found themselves in the “pigs” level compared to the higher ranked, wealthy “dogs”, who violently torment their lower ranking students.
When Kim Chul (Kim Hye-na) appears in the “pigs” ranks, he takes the fight back to the “dogs” and Kyung-min and Jong-suk finally have some protection. However, as the pair look back to the school days, there are some unspoken truths about their formative years.
What the film does particularly well is a bait-and-switch around elements of hope. A new student joins who could break-up the status quo, or a battle is won. Perhaps green grass awaits? Seldom so.
The bullies, or “dogs”, are not your run-of-the-mill knuckle-draggers though. They are also the smartest in the class and feel they warrant their position of ultimate power.
The reminiscing structure of the film adds an additional challenge. We are forced to go back, to open up old scars, to relive what happened to Kyung-min and Jong-suk in their toxic childhoods.
It is likely to be an additionally difficult watch for any victims of bullying themselves, but even for those who avoided such fate will emphasise with their plight. The first half of the film fills you with rage. Our natural tendency to despise unfairness is deeply provoked.
There is no doubt you must be in the right frame of mind for The King of the Pigs, but sometimes films are necessarily bleak in order to imprint their message on your mind. This is a lesson on bullying and hierarchical high school environments you are unlikely to ever forget.