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Movie review: ‘The King of Pigs’ is dark, gritty commentary on contemporary times

When I was in third year high school, we were required to read William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” for English class. It was about a group of British schoolboys marooned on a paradisiacal island after a plane crash and their spiral downwards into savagery as they attempt to govern themselves. I did not like that book one bit, although I could see its merits.

Enter the 2014 Korean Film Festival’s lone animated feature entry, “The King of Pigs.” Directed by Yeon Sang-ho, this 2011 film squarely in the drama genre won three awards in the Busan International Film Festival and was screened in the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

Businessman Hwang Kyung-min has just killed his wife. In his darkest moments, he remembers his middle school friend Kim Chul and receives a call that the number of another friend, Jung Jong-suk has been traced. When he receives Kyung-min’s call, Jong-suk has just been threatened with no pay at his freelance ghostwriting job and has beaten up a girlfriend whom he believes is having an affair with a professor and publisher at her workplace—and yet still offers to course the book to the man in question. Kyung-min and Jong-suk meet up at a restaurant to discuss their friend Chul.

As middle schoolers Kyung-min and Jong-suk are best friends at the bottom of the social hierarchy enforced with physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuses by their rich classmates and upperclassmen. They fail miserably at trying to fit in (Jong-suk steals his sister’s new Guess jeans, unaware that the red triangle is for girls) and even at keeping a low profile (Kyung-min tries to do his homework during an upperclassman’s campaign as president of the student council and gets slapped for it).

They are saved one day by classmate Chul, who shows no qualms in fighting back with even more brutality, unrelenting in the fury of his fists, the use of his belt, and once, a cutter. The three form a tentative friendship, maintained by their after-school meetings at an abandoned house even through increasing attentions from the bullies (the “dogs”) and Chul’s suspension and eventual expulsion.

However, Kyung-min and Jong-suk realize they’ve gotten into something they might not be able to handle when disturbed Chul stabs a feral cat before them and offers the cutter to each of them for dealing the death blows. Afterward, Kyung-min and Jong-suk vacillate between the status quo among “the pigs,” as they perceive the losers in their class, and loyalty to Chul and his ideals. Kyung-min leans more toward selling Chul out to the bullies while Jong-suk starts believing that they need to become monsters in order to fight the monsters—and that Chul is already a monster, the “King of Pigs.” Things start to spiral out of control and in the family lives of all three boys, driving them to desperate decisions that will forever change both themselves and the lives of their schoolmates.

It is difficult to summarize the plot of “The King of Pigs” without spoilers or shockers while attempting to capture just a little bit of this film’s essence. I think that’s a testament to how well the narrative was paced, how the scenes and time jumps were artfully chosen and ordered to fully maximize the suspense and the shocking yet inevitable ending. It is said that plot is the chronology of events while story is the order in which these events are presented—and boy, what a story “The King of Pigs” manages to be while commenting on bullying, teenagers, family, agency, social classes, and good and evil and the gray area most people fall into. The shadowy parts of Kyung-min and Jong-suk’s natures are eventually revealed, while much later in the film, Chul is shown to have a soft side: he is simply a young boy starved for love who is trying to make it into adulthood, albeit it through somewhat psychotic methods. “The King of Pigs” is truly a “Lord of the Flies” for our times.

The animation was gorgeous, with never a dull or stiff moment in any scene. I was just a little disturbed by the proportion of the characters’ heads were to their bodies, as it seems that only the child Chul was of the right proportions. The sharp, cleanly-defined cell animation can often give way to something more fluid, dynamic, and bursting with violent colors when the scenes call for the characters walking in a daze or hallucinating monsters after sniffing drugs, or imagining dead cats as their consciences. It’s also a commentary on the nature of people: we all keep up a façade of normalcy on the outside, but occasionally, the darkness within us spills out and ruins the boundaries we’ve so clearly defined for ourselves or others have defined for us.

The only thing I didn’t think sit well with this movie was its last few seconds, in which Jong-suk goes into a short, despairing monologue about the world and its place in it. Rather heavy-handed, but then again, this film punches you in the face from the first frame with a close-up of Kyung-min’s wife’s strangled corpse.

Not all cartoons are for children; this animated feature’s rating is R-16. I walked into the cinema expecting a nostalgic, if somewhat violent film—I walked out and onto the train in a daze, needing to watch something funny in the way some people need a stiff drink. Even after calming down, I could not get select scenes out of my mind for days. This is not a film that cat-lovers or the soft of heart would be able to take.

Do I like it? With films like this, I’m not sure the question of aesthetic taste matters here. Do I recommend it? Highly. Especially if you’re the sort of person who does not flinch or turn away from the ugly. And if you like other dark commentaries on human nature that grab innocence by the throat and turn it inside-out—but with a less overt delivery—I also recommend Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s graphic novel, “Beautiful Darkness,” which has a fairy tale motif.

And, do not eat while watching this film. — BM, GMA News

“The King of Pigs” was shown on October 9 at SM Megamall cinemas.