Editor’s Note: This review appeared as part of our coverage of the 11th Annual New York Asian Film Festival, and we’re bringing it back to be part of our Fantastic Fest coverage.
Animated films are traditionally the home of kiddie fare and pure entertainment, but on rare occasions filmmakers use the format to tell decidedly adult stories. Heavy Metal is probably the most notorious example, but even rarer are the animated films that attempt to tell truly dramatic tales about more than big boobed space warriors and horny robots. The Plague Dogs and When the Wind Blows are two fantastic examples of serious films with serious themes being told by way of animation.
And now one more bleak, occasionally stunning and depressing as hell cartoon can be added to that short list.
Kyung-min stands naked in the shower as his recently deceased wife sits dead at the kitchen table. Jong-suk suspects his wife is cheating on him and knocks her to the ground in his rage. The two men, once childhood friends, reunite after two decades apart to commiserate and reflect on their last year together in middle school. The year they discovered their place among the lowly, subservient pigs and the cruel, entitled dogs. The year they first noticed the small smile of tired acceptance worn by the defeated. The year they met Chul, a young boy who showed them how even a pig could fight back by matching brutality with brutality.
“We need to be a monster if you don’t want to keep living like a loser.”
Kyung-min and Jong-suk are unlikeable and unstable adults who look to the past in the hopes of understanding their present, and the flashbacks to their youth which make up most of the film offer up an unrelentingly bleak and painful watch. Chul clearly has troubles of his own, but he stands up to the bullies with swift and decisive ferocity Kyung-min is small for his age and easily bent in his allegiances, while Jong-suk remains steadfast and impressed by Chul’s effort.
But a line is drawn when Chul stabs a cat to death and then insists the two other boys bloody their own hands. He tells them they need to become more evil than the bullies if they hope to survive, and it creates an odd dichotomy between rooting for Chul to kick the bullies’ asses and the knowledge that he is a cruel animal killer crossing the line into psychosis.
The voice acting here is convincing and effective, and it helps that unlike Hollywood’s animated fare these are real actors instead of just recognizable celebrity voices. It’s worth noting though that Jong-suk is voiced as an adult and child by Yang Ik-june and Kim Kkobbi respectively. The pair last worked together in the devastatingly brilliant and thematically similar Breathless (my review).
The school-set violence does begin to feel monotonous though during the second act as the pattern plays out again and again with only minor deviation. The big kids bully, the smaller ones fight back and a teacher walks in and punishes the younger one as the sole aggressor. It becomes more frustrating than affecting at a certain point. Also somewhat of a momentum killer is a late shift from drama to misguided and unnecessary suspense.
The King of Pigs still works though as a straight drama and as a harsh indictment of a system that punishes the weak and rewards the already strong. Childhood is filled with challenges that often include bullies, but that right of passage shouldn’t be enabled by the adults whose job it is to protect and educate. Also indicted is Korea’s cycle of wealth as an arbiter of success. It’s almost a modern day caste system that often leaves only fear and suffering for those less fortunate.
New York Premiere
97 minutes, in Korean with English subtitles
Directed by: Yeun Sang-Ho
Starring: Yang Ik-June, Kim Kkobbi