Friday, August 24, 2012

KOFFIA 2012: King of Pigs (돼지의 왕, Dwaejiui Wang) 2011

Part of MKC's coverage of the 3rd Korean Film Festival in Australia (previously published).

(by Peter Gutiérrez)

I’m not sure what the current cultural status of bullying in is South Korea these days – are public policy steps being taken to curtail it, as is the case here in the U.S.? – but certainly anyone who has followed Korean cinema knows that it has provided the thematic backbone to films which cut across several genres. I’m a bit partial to A Bloody Aria (Won Shin-yeon, 2006), and Yeun Sang-ho’s The King of Pigs shares something of its beyond-bleak tone and emotionally raw approach. Just don’t look for any of the former’s dark humor: Yuen has crafted that rare film that effectively plunges head-first into the abyss and never really allows the audience to come up for air, let alone laughs.

So don’t expect a slow and “tasteful” build to the film’s often unforgettable moments of psychological and physical violence. Right away we see our point-of-view character Kyung-Min experience a form of workplace bullying… and then immediately turn around and take out his feelings of shame and powerlessness on his wife in a dynamic that strongly recalls that of James Joyce’s classic Dubliners short story “Counterparts.” But can all of his present-tense troubles really account for the way that Kyung-Min seems to be so haunted? This question is soon answered as he meets up with middle school classmate Jong-Suk for the first time in years, and it becomes clear to us that something happened back in their early adolescence that shaped both men… something that neither seems eager to discuss directly.

With this kind of intriguing, mystery-laden frame story in place, The King of Pigs returns to what may seem like familiar pop culture ground regardless of which national culture you’re talking about: small and nerdy students are hopelessly picked upon by their big and the cruel peers. But while the rhythms and setting of such a scenario may feel like old hat – the teachers are apathetic, and we wait in dread to find out how the victimized will, or will not, assert themselves – The King of Pigs adds what I’ll hazard is a distinctly Korean element: the virtually institutional quality of the bullying, as a given class of bullies is revealed to be simply one stratum within a school-wide hierarchy of abuse. But then Yeun, who also wrote the script, goes a step further and provides a uniquely compelling, if morally problematic, figure in the form of the title character.

Indeed, Chul-Yi, the troubled but supremely self-assured student who takes a stand against the bullies and thus offers a measure of protection for Kyung-Min and Jong-Suk, represents what might be called a “third option” beyond the character types usually offered in such dramas. Neither hero, villain, nor really even an anti-hero, “Chul” occupies a place in the narrative that complicates things, making the interactions richer and the moral issues more ambiguous. That’s because with this character Yeun is shooting for nothing less than an explication of the genesis of evil itself. Am I making an interpretive leap when I say this? Hardly: Chul himself uses the “E” word when he calmly lectures his put-upon classmates in his quasi-Nietzschean philosophy.

In this way, gradually eschewing any pretense at naturalism for a full-on, if operatic, “drama of ideas,” The King of Pigs comes to, if you’ll forgive me, justify the fact that it’s animated. To be sure, aesthetically the power of its rendered figures is clear from the opening minutes – their intentional ugliness foreshadows the nastiness of the events that follow and, one might argue, reflects the ugliness of the characters’ interiors. Time and again their designs and movements seem to accentuate the grotesque. As though emotionally stunted or repressed, or both, they often rely on a twitch of an eyebrow to convey expressiveness.  More disquieting is the way their arms appear to be too short for their bodies, suggesting T-rex-style predators built for a tooth-and-fang attack but incapable of building anything… or embracing each other.

In addition, the animation is used to deliver a couple of dreamy mindscreen sequences in which mangled dead animals and the like speak to our schoolboys. These moments are only marginally successful since their ability to disturb is undermined a bit by how nightmarish the “real” story elements already are; in any other context, they might be chilling. More subtle is the overall color scheme. The school-set scenes feature drab, watered-down earth tones that suggest a prison or factory. The present-day scenes are even more remarkable, with their range of oppressively warm, red-tinged tans and arid yellows dominating every location as if the characters have been slow-roasting for years in a lowkey hell of their own making.

Sound like a place you’d like to visit?

Well, I think it practically goes without saying that The King of Pigs won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, if you miss out on it you’re missing the chance to experience a deeply felt work that, refreshingly (if somewhat nihilistically) goes beyond the simple, standard binary of bully and victim. As such, it’s a film that’s more thoughtful and artful than one might first suppose; in fact, for that very reason I’m looking forward to revisiting it at some point since it certainly has a lot more to offer than shocks and topical subject matter.

Peter Gutiérrez, a U.S. correspondent for MKC, writes for Twitch and blogs on pop culture for School Library Journal.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).

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