Sunday, July 01, 2012

NYAFF ’12: The King of Pigs

If the professional worrywarts really wanted to end bullying, they would start subsidizing karate lessons for the small and less assertive, but it seems they’d rather wring their hands—on national TV.  Yes, it is a problem in many cases, but the peculiarly American disinclination towards hierarchy is positive countervailing influence.  This is not necessarily the case in Korea.  What we might call bullying is the institutionalized order of things in Yeun Sang-ho’s thematically mature animated feature, The King of Pigs (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

As King opens, it appears safe to say two formerly bullied grown adults have not broken the chain of abuse.  Both Hwang Kung-min and Jung Jong-suk are having bad days—lives might be more accurate.  Finding himself at a particularly low point, Hwang reaches out to Jung, whom he has not talked to in years.  Eventually, we will learn why they drifted apart.

Hwang wants to talk about Kim Chul, the mysterious transfer student they befriended in their middle school years.  Though they came from different backgrounds, Hwang and Jung were both “Pigs,” the proles of their school, who were merciless picked on by the ruling “Dogs,” by virtue of their superior social status or brute strength.  An outsider in every sense, Kim threatens their established order like a violently rage-stoked James Dean.

For obvious reasons, Hwang and Jung fall under the spell of their rebellious protector.  However, the deck is stacked against Kim by the Dogs and their enablers.  As he realizes the futility of his position, Kim really starts to get dark and stormy.

This is no after school special.  King easily features some of the festival’s most brutal beatdowns.  Playing the Battle Royale would be like a reprieve for these kids.  Yet, as surely exaggerated as it must be, one cannot help feel Yeun is tapping into something very real and deep in his countrymen’s collective psyche.

While at times hallucinatory, Yeun’s animation is mostly straight forward and in the viewer’s face, keeping the film rooted in a sense of urgency.  His characters are profoundly flawed and painfully human.  Actions have consequences that ripple outward, impacting others, years after the fact.  There is also no small degree of class warfare at play, notwithstanding Hwang’s relatively well-to-do, but socially shunned Karaoke owning family.  Yet, viewers can also see how Jung’s class envy metastasizes into something quite ugly and anti-social.

Holding the distinction of being the first Korean animated feature to screen at Cannes, the angry but cinematic King is absolutely not for children.  It lands a heck of a punch though.  Despite the somewhat inconsistent pacing, it is viscerally effective.  Recommended for hardy animation fans, The King of Pigs screens as part of the 2012 NYAFF this coming Saturday (7/7) and Sunday (7/8), with screenwriter-director Yeun in attendance both dates.