If you didn’t care what happened to me
And I didn’t care for you
We would zig zag our way through the boredom and pain
Occasionally glancing up through the rain
Wondering which of the buggars to blame
And watching for pigs on the wing
— Pink Floyd, "Pigs on the Wing (Pt. 1)", Animals
Japanese cinema buffs Thomas Weisser and Yuko Mihara Weisser once referred to a trend they described as "dove-style violence" in Japanese cinema, depictions of a phenomenon where members of a group dispassionately peck the weakest or least-conformant members of the flock until it dies. I am not sure if the term is an invention of theirs or a transliteration of an actual Japanese term — my dictionary doesn't give me any clues — but the phenomenon they describe is grimly familiar in most any regimented and self-taxonomizing society. South Korea is at least as much like this as Japan, and while The King of Pigs uses different metaphors, the point is the same: the pecking order will be maintained at all costs. Not just who's on top now, but the fact of a few being at the top and many being at the bottom.
Most animation, not just Japanese or South Korean, falls into roughly two categories: commercial product, and work that tilts closer to an arthouse sensibility and the need to communicate rather than to entertain. Japan has provided plenty of latter examples: Cat Soup, Angel's Egg, and maybe even The Flowers of Evil. The King of Pigs shares a bitterness of worldview with that last project, although it isn't as heedless to abandon commercial storytelling and pacing — it's designed like a thriller or suspense story, but only as a way to introduce a potentially unsuspecting audience to an angry critique of a society that can't be bothered to care about its young.
The happiest days of our lives
King of Pigs opens with no jollying-up, no preludes. Kyung-min, a professional looking man in perhaps his late twenties, has just strangled his wife to death. He places a call to Jong-suk, a tough-looking fellow of about the same age, his career as a freelance writer foundering. His most recent humiliation involves a ghostwritten biography that isn't hagiographic enough for his editor's tastes. Not long after Jong-suk takes out his own frustration on his girlfriend (he nearly throttles her as well, after frenzied speculation about where she spent the whole evening), Kyung-min's call arrives. The two have not spoken since high school; what could a successful businessman possibly want with a struggling writer that hasn't shared a thing with him for years?
What Kyung-min has summoned the other man for is a discussion about Chul. He was a boy they both knew in high school, back when they were among those on the lower rungs of the class structure. It didn't matter that Kyung-min's father was allegedly well-off (for reasons Kyung-min was oblivious to at the time); it mattered that Kyung-min was a sniveler, and having rough-and-tumble Jong-suk as his only friend didn't help. Status was everything in school, so much so that Jong-suk was even willing to steal a pair of Western jeans from his sister to seem that much less of a loser.
The one ally of a sort they did have was Chul — a severe-looking loner who spent most of his time in the back of the class, rousing himself only to deal out blows against whatever bully happened to be doing the tormenting. The film quickly makes it clear how Chul is not some sexy moody rebel who protects the innocent. He's a sociopath, someone for whom seeing the strong prey on the weak merely constitutes a pretext for him to lash out at the predators. He knows full well the only thing waiting for him after high school is a life where he's once again at the bottom; the only thing that matters is a manifestation of strength, one less for the sake of liberating the oppressed than for showing the bastards who's boss.
Kyung-min and Jong-suk can't help but be ambivalent about Chul. On the one hand, he seems like the only other student who cares to take their side, in whatever form. On the other, the way he takes their side is by trying to educate them into violence. In a scene that is likely to test the endurance of any audience, Chul stabs a stray cat half to death, then eggs the other two on to finish the job. Jong-suk nerves himself for the job, but is haunted by what he has done; Kyung-min runs off in tears, but eventually returns and shows he, too, can man up if needed. It's hard to say what Jong-suk is more haunted by: his complicity in this cruelty, or the fact that Kyung-mun has become that much more poisoned by this kind of thinking.
The film gradually cuts off all avenues of escape for the three of them. When a new student arrives — Chan-young, polite and smart — Kyung-min and Jong-suk consider befriending him as a way to get that much further away from Chul and his seething rage. Unfortunately, Chan-young is just as helpless in the face of bullying, and just as prone to resorting to violence as a way to even scores.
Maybe Chul is right; maybe the only way to survive at all in such an environment is to follow his example, and to dish out a beating to all those who give it to you. Why not, especially when the adult world cares more about protecting its own than protecting you? And as for Chul himself, after he gets expelled, he's tempted by the prospect of martyring himself as a way of ruining the lives of his tormentors. And over all this looms, ever larger with each passing scene, what it was that happened between Chul, Kyung-min, and Jong-suk that could reach across decades and ruin both of their lives.
Touching a nerve
Reviewing anything that involves bullying is always a difficult proposition for me, as it reopens old wounds that never really closed. Some part of me will always be that scared kid, wondering when his tormentor is going to pop out from behind a car parked around the corner from his house. This makes talking about The King of Pigs all the more difficult; it's far harder than usual to separate my own analysis of the film from my emotional reactions to it.
That said, this may be a significant part of the movie's strategy — to evoke in its own audience the same feelings of helplessness and rage that Chul, Kyung-min, and Jong-suk themselves experience routinely. Good art is at least partly about generating empathy in the audience, presenting a shared experience that works first on an emotional level. If we find problems with the logic in the story later, so be it; that doesn't change how we were grabbed by the throat the first time. By the end of the movie, their rage seems less like a self-indulgence or a mistake, and more like the only possible reaction to an environment that offers them nothing but dead ends.
If The King of Pigs has flaws, it's not that in what we're presented with is illogical — if anything, the logic of its climax and conclusion is so merciless and closed-ended, it's hard to see how this story could have ended any other way. The entire world depicted there is a stacked deck; to give them a happy ending would have bordered on cheating. When Kyung-min and Jong-suk are cornered by bullies looking for Chul, they defend him and get beaten up anyway — but if they try to shift the blame, they'd be called "disloyal" and beaten up too. Nothing that happens in the film is remotely fair, but that's also the idea: this is a story about what happens when justice and fairness simply aren't a part of the picture in someone's life.
Discussing stories of this kind usually provokes at least one comment along these lines: If this story is so bleak and unremitting, why subject ourselves to it? Isn't life as it is hard enough? Sure, and there's little I could say that would change someone's mind if the primary reason they seek out any entertainment is for levity or detachment from life's trials. Those are perfectly valid reasons to watch something, or create something to be watched. But so is wanting to depict life in its less palatable moments, to communicate a truth or two that may not be pretty but may provide insight that could not be had any other way. The audience for such work is always smaller than the audience that only wants to forget its troubles, but no less eager to be addressed in its own way.
South Korea is mainly known for its work-for-hire animation studios, where in-betweening and gruntwork on productions for other countries, mainly Japan and the United States, are ground out on low budgets and tight schedules. Native animation productions are few and far between, but the few that have surfaced are radically different in tone and conception than the work they produce for others. The King of Pigs may only have minimal production values — the quality of the animation varies wildly even within a single scene — but it has the nerve and determination to use its minimal assets to tell a story that matters and has weight. It also echoes the full-throated roar of many of South Korea's other live-action films as of late, as the country's cinema comes into its own all the more after decades of repression.
When I wrote about Jin-Roh, one criticism I noted about the film was the idea that the movie could just as easily have been live-action, so why make it animation? I disagreed with this notion in principle then, and I disagree with it twice as much now. Animation allows us to do things on minimal budgets that would otherwise be too difficult, logistically or financially, to accomplish in live action. It provides us with a kind of freedom we don't have elsewhere. a freedom that can be used to any number of ends. Escapism and fantasy are only two such ends; realism is every bit as legitimate an end unto itself. And while realism — especially realism this cold and confrontational — may not be what most of the audience for animation wants, it has every much of a right to find an audience as anything else.