According to the press notes for The King of Pigs, director Yeun Sang-Ho based the film on his own experiences in middle school in his native South Korea. Even if the what's onscreen is just a partial exaggeration, it had to have been a harrowing, horrible time for him and any kid dubbed one of the "pigs" in the film. In the viciously stratified all boys school that Yuen puts on the screen, the pigs are at the very bottom of the social castes, weak or poor kids, or kids who just aren't connected. Their bullying at the hands of the better-of "dogs" is really a case of the old saying that crap rolls downhill: the dogs are beaten and harassed by upperclassmen who set the rules and those beatings are passed down to the lowly pigs.
In Yuen's story, Jong-Suk and Kyung-Min are two such "pigs" whose present-day lives as adults are irrevocably damaged by those days. But before you go thinking that the shifting timeline of The King of Pigs is simply a weepy animated drama about bullying, consider the character that Kyung-Min and Jong-Suk can't stop obsessing over in their adulthood: the damaged, dangerous Chul-Yi, another boy from their class who isn't afraid of the bullies because he's some kind of terrible monster himself. How these three boys' lives and intersect lays the groundwork for their tragic futures, and Yuen realizes it as a steady, slowly-building nightmare.
Wisely, Yuen doesn't glamorize the would-be titular "King of Pigs," Chul or make him seem all that heroic. Lonely, angry, and armed, he has a killer's eyes and really only seems to offer his friendship to equally angry and poor Jong-Suk and sensitive, slightly well-to-do Kyung-Min because he needs someone to hear him talk. His time in the classroom inevitably leads to a fight with one or more of the "dogs," typically ending with the latter receiving a severe thrashing. It's the boy's stated mission to make life a memorable hell for the school's dogs so that 20 years later, they won't be able to look back on that time with false false nostalgia.
While that's a pretty sophisticated thought for a young boy, it does have resonance for our two leads, who as adults have their own broken lives. Jong-Suk is a frustrated writer who takes it out on his loving wife, while Kyung-Min, the son of a well-to-do businessman has hit rock bottom financially and strangled his wife to death in the opening scene, an act that isn't commented on for the rest of the film, nearly convincing me that it was maybe Kyung-Min's fantasy until the final act. As ever, crap keeps rolling downhill. Still, anyone who's suffered the severe type of bullying these men suffered as boys can at least empathize with where their thoughts take them, if not their actions.
In spite of the unglamorous subject matter of kids brutalizing kids, the direction and animation keep the onscreen action eminently watchable. The lanky characters seem ready to explode into violence or take punishment at any time, and director Yuen provides some thrilling, vicious fight scenes that still strike the tricky balance of seeming less cool and more tense—these are kids, after all and this is bound to escalate into something horrible. Plus, the jumps between the past and the present increasingly start to take on the air of a mystery story. Obviously, something bad happens to Chul-Yi that damaged Jong-Suk and Kyung-Min as much as if not more than the bullying, and The King of Pigs keeps our attention by teasing out what that is.
This is a movie that will stick with you, its texture and misery clinging to your thoughts sometime after you've walked out of the theater. It's up to you to decide if you're up for the terrible things Yuen memories Yuen wants to inflict upon you here.
The King of Pigs will screen today at 3:45 and tomorrow at 8 PM as part of the New York Asian Film Festival. Director Yuen Sang-Ho will be attending both showings. You can find ticketing info on the NYAFF site.