Country: South Korea
Director: Yeun Sang-Ho
Studio: Studio Dadashow, KT&G Sangsangmadang
Screenplay: Yeun Sang-Ho
Art Direction: N/A
Animation Direction: N/A
Soundscore: Eom Been
Voice Cast: Yang Ik-joon, Oh Jung-se, Kim Hye-na, Kim Kkobbi, Park Hee-von
Runtime: 97 min
Distribution: Terracotta (UK)
Seen at the Terracotta on Tour screening at the Genesis Cinema thanks to winning tickets from Eastern Kicks. Special thanks also go to the Korean Film Council, which provided me with online access to the film. The King of Pigs will screen in London on March 8, 2013 as part of the Pan-Asia Film Festival and will be released on DVD by Terracotta on March 11, 2013.
학교 2013 (Hakkyo 2013/School 2013, South Korea, 2013), a television drama that recently aired on KBS2, explores the life and struggles of high school students on a number of levels, tackling issues such as the pressure of academic achievement, strained relationships with parents and suicide, but also the hierarchical structures of classrooms and bullying, breaking with the silence that still surrounds many of these problems in Korean society. Hakkyo 2013 deserves praise for the candid as well as sensitive portrayal of these issues, but it does not go all the way, for although the picture it presents is surprisingly dark, it is not one entirely without hope. Indeed, as television productions face the judgment of a media regulation agency and weekly viewing figures from an audience that remains hesitant about open conversations on such issues, it is left to a few, audacious films to play out the worst scenarios imaginable until the very end. One of these films – in animated form – is 돼지의 왕 (Daegieui wang/The King of Pigs, 2011).
Its story begins by projecting us to the bleak future of those that were already powerless during their school days: Classmates and friends of sorts in back middle school, the now 30-year old Kyung-min’s (Oh Jung-se; Park Hee-Bon voices the child character) business has gone bankrupt, while Jong-suk (Yang Ik-joon; Kim Kkobbi) is a failed ghostwriter, a fact that is doubly symbolic of his social insignificance – he is not only incapable of being a professional in his own right, but also lacking success as a nameless writer producing words in someone else’s stead, thus identity-less and non-existent twice over. For reasons initially obscure Kyung-min seeks out Jong-suk after fifteen years of estrangement and begins to recall their shared past. Back in those days Kyung-min and Jong-suk were ‘pigs’, the lowest of the low in a world of ‘dogs’, bullied and beaten by their classmates at every turn. The position at the bottom of the social ladder seems non-negotiable, until one day one of the ‘pigs’ resists: Chul (Kim Hye-na), their classmate, rebels.
If it is an act that seems daring or even brave, the reality is in fact much darker. Although Chul assumes the position of ‘King of pigs’, with Kyung-min and Jong-suk as his followers, and while things the classroom become unsettled with Chul’s complete lack of fear of those above him, powers do not in fact shift significantly. Instead, what emerges is that even the bullies bow to someone higher and that the bullied are equally cruel.
Chul is an intriguing character, for he inspires both disgust and sympathy. He challenges his new ‘friends’ to savagely slaughter a cat, whose spirit from then on haunts not only the boys’ dreams, but stalks ominously through the narrative and torments the viewers’ minds henceforth. Chul clearly lacks even the slightest moral inhibitions (he is willing to do anything) or sense of self-preservation (it is a rebellion till death, even if that means sacrificing himself). While adjectives like ‘sadistic’ and ‘despicable’ certainly describe his personality, he cannot be condemned as easily it would seem. There are enough glimpses of Chul’s life outside of school to reveal an individual that is completely broken, either severely neglected or possibly completely abandoned by his parents, with no real home to go to, no love or care to receive from anyone – an individual that is, after all, still a minor and has not even yet entered high school.
That the main events of the story play out in a middle school setting, with youngsters that are perhaps 13, 14 years of age, is one of the reasons why Daegieui wang is so terribly bleak. Although we all know that games of power start early, it is shocking to observe the ruthless brutality of characters that are like adults irreversibly hardened by their experience of life, contrasted with moments that leave no doubt that the agents involved are in fact children. In particular Chul’s scheme of vengeance to ruin his bullying classmates’ memories of these days demonstrates his youthful naivety, for no right-thinking grown-up would devise a plan of this sort seriously believing it could have some sort of lasting impact on others or be a liberation for oneself. With neither Kyung-min’s or Jong-suk’s life having changed for the better (rather the contrary) in the scenes set in the present, the film signals that for the lowest of the low there is no hope, no escape from birth and life as a pig, depicting a truth that sits uncomfortably and that more mainstream films and TV series even as laudable as Hakkyo 2013 are not quite ready to acknowledge. The absence of teachers and adults more generally – except in the present-day framing narrative – is conspicuous, suggesting a lack of attention and failure to intervene by those tasked with educating and protecting minors. Moreover, their almost complete nonappearance also results in a story related entirely from the point of view of a few middle schoolers (or these middle schoolers when grown up), intensifying the gravity of the situation and the fatal impact that power play can have on individuals even more.
Art and and animation-wise Daegieui wang’s drawing style is fairly basic, occasionally flawed – bodily proportions of characters are not always accurate – and somewhat ugly, similar to what can often be found in the seinen manga genre. Here Yeun’s revelation that Furuya Minor’s manga「ヒミズ」(Himizu/Himizu) provided a major source for inspiration comes as no surprise, as the Korean film and the Japanese comic certainly share this visual ugliness, in addition to the equally bleak content. The animation in Daegieui wang, a low-budget, independent effort, is also rather simplistic and viewers accustomed to the smooth, fluid style of Western animated films or the painstakingly detailed, mostly hand-drawn creations of Studio Ghibli, may find it distracting. Even if we may hope for aesthetic and technical improvements in future Yeon Sang-ho animations, in this particular production the rough-around-the-edges quality reinforces the rawness of the story told.
Imperfect as it may be, the success of the film – it has screened widely on the festival circuit, including in high-profile places like Cannes, won multiple awards and even earned itself a UK home media release – speaks for itself, the brutal truth contained within Daegieui wang having shaken up viewers. Last but not least, it is also yet one more more cinematic piece within Korean animation that is helping this industry carve out a special niche for itself in the wider world of animated films: as one that is not shy to tackle the darkest of topics and pursue them to their darkest of conclusions.
Overall verdict: Undeniably bleak from the beginning until the end, Daegieui wang delivers a message that is perhaps disillusioning, but more importantly initiates a much needed conversation not only about school bullying, but on the profound effect that social power play more generally has on individuals.
- As mentioned, Daegieui wang screened at Cannes – it was the first feature-length animation from South Korea to do so.
- The film is Yeon Sang-ho’s first feature-length production, having been preceded by two shorter animations 지옥 : 두개의 삶 (Jiog: Dugaeui Salm/The Hell: Two Kinds of Life, 2006) and 사랑은 단백질 (Salang-eun Danbaegjil/Love is Protein, 2008), the latter featuring as part of the omnibus 인디애니박스: 셀마의 단백질 커피 (Indiaenibakseu: Selmaeui Danbaekjil Keopi), alongside the contributions of two other directors. Another short, 창 (Chang/The Window, South Korea, 2012), followed Daegieui wang.
- Awards include NETPAC Award and DGK Award of Director (2011 Busan International Film Festival), a special mention at the New Flesh Award for Best First Feature the Satoshi Kon Award for Achievement in Animation as well as the Jury Prize at the Dublin International Film Festival.
- A short making-of the cool poster for the film’s UK release (both the Korean and the British posters are included in the Image Gallery below).