Jong-suk (Yang Ik-june) is a struggling writer whose home life is as chaotic and unsuccessful as his professional endeavours. Out of the blue, he receives a telephone call from a close friend from his youth, Kyung-min (Oh Jeong-se), asking if they could meet to talk about their school days and the boy who was largely their childhood hero, Chul (Kim Hye-na).
As the men talk of their memories of their mutual friend over a reunion dinner it quickly becomes clear that Chul is still a hero in their minds but Jong-suk continues to be at a loss to understand why Kyung-min wanted them to meet after so many years.
However, as they recall more details of their past together the true darkness behind the story increasingly threatens to be revealed...
If you were to think back to your childhood and school days, would your memories bring you largely happy, nostalgic reminiscences or would altogether more painful - even dark - situations be reawakened and brought once more to the forefront of your mind? And how much would you consider those memories to be responsible for making you the person you are today? That is, in essence, one of the first questions to be asked by King of Pigs.
After being briefly introduced to the somewhat flawed adults Jong-suk and Kyung-min have become, we see the two men meet at Kyung-min's behest for the first time in years and as they talk we jump back in time to share their painful memories of their school days; in the formative years of their lives.
The pupils at the middle school attended by Jong-suk (voiced in his youth by Kim Kkobbi) and Kyung-min (Park Hee-bon) are forced to adhere to an incredibly hierarchical structure instigated and enforced by a powerful and deeply cruel group of bullies - seen as elite 'dogs' by both young boys - who terrorize the school's weaker and financially poorer children; the 'pigs'. In fact, so brow-beaten are Jong-suk and especially Kyung-min that they have almost resigned themselves to just trying to survive until their hellish school days end. That is, until Chul enters their lives.
Chul appears to be afraid of no-one and nothing and as takes it upon himself to fight against the tyranny of 'the dogs', and protect 'the pigs' in the process, it soon becomes clear that his ultimate plan is not only to end their reign of terror once and for all but also ensure that their memories of youth are as painful as those of the 'pigs' they have terrorized for so long.
He truly and increasingly believes the only way to set himself and his new friends free is to become a monster even more evil than the 'dogs', but, to Jong-suk and Kyung-min, Chul is and always will be the King of Pigs.
The dark, often ultra-violent content with which this allegorical tale is infused is referenced from the very first scene of King of Pigs - Kyung-min's wife lying dead, sprawled (eyes still open) over the kitchen table while her husband sobs beneath the shower, naked - but while it could be argued that the level of brutality repeatedly depicted throughout the narrative is typically Korean and akin to any number of what are now considered to be 'classic' Korean cinematic works set during school years; subsequent to; or both, director Yeun Sang-ho uses it to not only to comment on vicious hierarchical power struggles within the school system, and their effect on all those involved, but also to delve far more deeply thematically into the very nature of humanity itself and in the process dissect the far reaching consequences of succumbing to base animalistic instincts, even in desperation.
Certainly, the ideas of 'violence begets violence'; 'fight fire with fire' and 'become a monster to beat a monster' are inherent to the King of Pigs' narrative but in this instance those ideas really are just the tip of the iceberg:
The aforementioned early scenes in King of Pigs - Kyung-min in his apartment while his wife lies dead slumped over the kitchen table; Jong-suk failing in his professional life and continually fighting with his spouse - are tellingly juxtaposed with the far more innocent victims they were (initially) in their youth; prior to the dark and mysterious Chul entering their lives. Chul's talk of discarding his humanity to beat the animalistic dogs both frightens and draws the young boys to him in equal measure; cementing their perception of him as protector and saviour. He is their only hope - their hero on a pedestal - and their desire to ensure he remains in that lofty position soon becomes almost their sole focus.
The question is whether Jong-suk or Kyung-min will ultimately be willing to sacrifice their own humanity to do so.
The imagery and animation in King of Pigs is decidedly, and deliberately, old school - appearing as almost a dark graphic novel brought to life - and while that will likely come as no surprise considering the film's subject matter it adds an extra layer of grittiness and realism to proceedings, nonetheless. Pacing is well balanced throughout, building in tandem with the palpable tension created by the narrative and there is no feeling of padding or dragging whatsoever over the film's entire running time.
Finally, the entire cast give exemplary voice performances throughout but special note should be made of the intelligent decision to have actresses Kim Kkobbi, Park Hee-bon and Kim Hye-na voice the characters of Jong-suk, Kyung-min and Chul, respectively, in their youth; thereby aurally and almost subconsciously underlining Jong-suk and Kyung-min's innocence and vulnerability in the face of the cruel bullying and intimidation inflicted on them by the vicious 'dogs' as well as their respect for Chul bravery in standing up to them.
Cast (Character... Voice Actor):
Jong-suk (in adulthood)... Yang Ik-june
Kyung-min (in adulthood)... Oh Jeong-se
Jong-suk (in youth)... Kim Kkobbi
Kyung-min (in youth)... Park Hee-bon
Chul... Kim Hye-na
While the ideas of 'violence begets violence' and 'fight fire with fire' are indeed inherent to the King of Pigs narrative, they really are just the tip of the iceberg within this dark, brooding and brutal dissection of humanity itself.
Terracotta Distribution will release King of Pigs in UK cinemas on January 25th followed by a DVD release on May 13th.