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The King of Pigs – Review
by Miguel Douglas on February 19, 2013
After his business goes bankrupt, 30 something Kyung-Min kills his wife impulsively. Hiding his anger, he seeks out his former middle school classmate Jong-Suk. Jong-Suk now works as a ghostwriter for an autobiography, but he dreams of writing his own novel. For the first time in 15 years they meet. Kyung-Min and Jong-Suk both hide their own current situations and begin to talk about their middle school days.
The issue of bullying in South Korean schools has only in recent years been considered a serious social issue to publicly discuss, with the likes of the media further bringing to light the harshness that surrounds such a complicated societal dilemma. Obviously, one should also not forget that the issue of bullying takes on a worldly context as well, with practically every country having to address it in some fashion. Still, regardless of such exposure and subsequent public scrutiny within South Korea, very little has actually been done to fully address school bullying or its association with the steadily rising suicide rates amongst South Korean youth. Director Yeun Sang-Ho explores this issue of school bullying albeit through a considerably darker and violent lens in The King of Pigs, a film looking at the drastic psychological effects that bullying has upon the individual.
Opening immediately to that of the rather brutal aftermath of an apparent murder, The King of Pigs is not a film that takes itself lightly. For almost the entire running time, we as viewers are subjected to abundant displays of animal cruelty, sexual molestation, horrific physical violence, and even suicide. These troublesome subjects culminate in the world in which Kyung-Min and Jong-Suk, the film’s two characters, find themselves in, equally sharing the blunt end of middle school bullies who harass and humiliate them and their peers in savage expressions of dominance. Yeun Sang-Ho, who also wrote the script, vividly creates a world in which there is very little to any physical involvement by adults, only focusing on the callousness brought about by Kyung-Min and Jong-Suk’s classmates. Yeun Sang-Ho has said that many of the characters and incidents within the film are based upon his own experiences when he was younger, easing between fiction and fantasy as he graphically recounts events of such bullying through the film’s narrative.
First and foremost, The King of Pigs is successful in terms of being a visceral experience. The aggressiveness in which the film displays the savagery that commences within the middle school is an emotionally wrenching experience to say the least, but the prominent fault of the film lies in its inability to effectively establish any sort of realistic character development. This mainly stems from Kyung-Min, Jong-Suk, the rugged Chul-Yi—and apparently the entire school—seemingly being exempt from any sort of influence by their parents or teachers, which in turn produces a sort of Lord of the Fly-esque atmosphere throughout most of the film. This self-contained world would have been completely fine if not for the fact that the film takes place primarily within a classroom, in turn internalizing and viewing the issue of bullying as simply a strange concoction that exists somewhere outside of the realm of reality. While there are adults within the film, they neither attempt to help the children nor offer much guidance, which may be a commentary upon the state of contemporary bullying within South Korea, but it largely produces an artificial environment in which the relentless exercise of bullying can take place. There are also glimpses of the social acceptance of bullying that often occurs, as well as the vicious cycle of perpetual violence between that of the bully and bullied, but neither is fully explored much. The analogy of the pigs is yet another example of a well placed allegorical comparison of social hierarchy within the film, but Yeun Sang-Ho doesn’t do much with it beyond a superficial level of comparison.
And while it is certainly a film that concerns itself with attempting to explore the topic of bullying, it is also one that is oddly affected by the very medium it finds itself in. In other words, The King of Pigs is severely hindered by its effectiveness as an animated film. From a visual standpoint, the budget capacity of the film was obviously low and looks very much like an amateurish attempt more so than a professional display of technical prowess. While one should not base the merit of a film solely on its budget, the limited budget here primarily works against the film and seriously diminishes much of the emotional weight of the material shown throughout. Scenes such as a character’s emotional downfall often transforms into strangely comical example of just how impaired the animation quality truly is. It would be more than safe to say that the film would have worked out much better as a live-action film, which I believe would then been an incredibly powerful testament to the effects of bullying. Unfortunately, that is not what we have here.
While one can applaud The King of Pigs for courageously attempting to explore a difficult and taboo subject, it also stumbles in regards to its execution. The plaguing technical deficits that continually pop up throughout the film don’t necessarily help the relevancy and importance of the film’s topics, distracting the viewer more so than effectively bringing about a world where we can sympathize with the plight of the film’s characters. Also, the realized world that Yeun Sang-Ho constructs doesn’t exactly handle the issue of bullying fairly well, with a narrative that is as much contrived as it is misguided. One cannot deny that The King of Pigs is an animated film that tackles a serious dilemma within South Korea—and undoubtedly, the world—but it is also one riddled with technical issues and structural flaws that slowly remove any meaningful commentary it may have had surrounding the destructive ramifications of bullying.