Harrowing as it may sound, The King of Pigs does a better job at portraying modern-day Korean society than most popular movies or dramas. In fact, one striking feature about this 97 minute animation is that not only is it based on a true story, but the sequence of events is accurately illustrated down to the finest detail.
Take, for instance, the scene where the two former middle school classmates, Jung Jong-suk and Hwang Kyung-min, meet over a Korean barbecue while drinking copious bottles of soju discussing their youth. This is a typical scene in South Korea. Even more typical is the content of their discussion: “It was a strict hierarchical society. Our class was not that high in said society.” The protagonists recount the bullying that took place between them – the pigs – and the bullies which ruled the classroom – the dogs. To foreign viewers, the images that are portrayed may not seem real. However, most Koreans will immediately recognize that this type of bullying is common, not only in the classroom, but in the military and, at times, in the workplace. Students beating each other, cussing and bullying others into submission is a documented reality and the cause of much domestic concern. In fact, the punch that one of the three protagonists, Kim Chul, takes to the face is akin to that of the infamous YouTube video where a Korean teacher punches a school girl multiple times on the head and face.
The movie also painstakingly portrays the shallow society that South Korea has become. When Jong-suk returns home one day, he finds his sister whining to her mother, begging her to purchase some Guess jeans: “Mom please buy it for me.” she wails. “This one’s different. It’s Guess. The one with the triangle mark.” On an other occasion, Chul talks about when his father told him, “With money, you can be happy and have everything.” But the condemnation of this way of thinking eventually comes from Chul himself, when his father eventually commits suicide. An autopsy shows signs of death by poisoning. Chul storms out of the hospital room, shouting: "F*ing money, money, money. Stop F*ing talking about money!" The King of Pigs makes this point clear: a society that is more concerned with money and personal success than with life itself is a society that is in dire need of re-examination and self-reflection.
One aspect that anyone will notice when watching The King of Pigs, is that there are gratuitous images of cussing and violence without rhyme or reason. Throughout the movie, evil is not only talked about as an abstract concept but also portrayed as a physical thing. There is one scene when Chul stabs a cat to death. Before doing so, he reasons: "What makes us human is the evil itself. If you don’t want to be an idiot, you gotta become a monster." The cat that he and the other two boys slaughter turns up time and again, laughing and haunting them for the rest of the movie.
These scenes of violence towards animals are a facet of Korean society that are deeply embedded in the national psyche. Suffice it to think about Korean movie director Kim Ki-duk, who inflicted nauseating amounts of pain to animals in his movies. In one movie, his cast rips the skin off a live frog. In the movie Old Boy, a whole live octopus is eaten alive, its flesh ripped off with the protagonist’s teeth. Kim Ki-duk himself admitted, "I’ve done a lot of cruelty on animals in my films. And I will have a guilty conscience for the rest of my life." Given Korea’s turbulent history – from being a Japanese colony for 35 years, to the years of harsh military dictatorship by Park Chung-hee in the '60s and '70s, South Koreans have hardened to the point where violence between people – let alone animal violence – hardly seems like a crime. The King of Pigs aptly depicts this troubling facet of present-day Korea.
There is one final, and perhaps most important, facet of Korean culture that the movie articulates: suicide. Many of the characters in the movie discuss killing themselves. After stealing a walkman, Jong-suk's sister confesses she’d like to kill herself. The materialistic girl steals those objects that she sees others have but that her family cannot afford, and the thought of not being able to be equal her peers in terms of wealth makes her want to end her life. Chul also expresses his desire to die and damn the so-called pigs: "I'll commit suicide in public. I'll kill myself in front of them, cursing them." Chul eventually commits what is thought to be suicide by jumping off the school building. In reality, as the viewer comes to find out, his death is not caused by suicide but rather homicide. Jong-suk shoves him off the ledge of their middle school rooftop, an act of unthinkable cruelty especially when one takes into consideration the fact that the story has a foundation in reality. Ultimately, inebriated and depressed after recounting his middle school days with Jong-suk, Hwang Kyung-min also jumps off the same building where Chul met his death. While suicide in South Korean schools is shocking to watch, it is ostensibly a common spectacle and a social dilemma that is widely known.
Perhaps due to the gratuitous violence, swearing and gruesome images that are enough to make one wince, The King of Pigs is not a famous movie. In Korea, it won three awards at the 2011 Busan International Film Festival and it was also selected to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. However, the movie should be brought to more people’s attention as it is extremely powerful. There is no good guy in this animation, as there is no bad guy. Everyone appears to be equally evil. In the end, one conclusion that can be drawn is that all the characters are, in their own sickening way, pigs. The King of Pigs brings to light many of the social problems that plague South Korean society: drinking, superficiality and materialism, sexism, a highly stratified society, classroom bullying, animal cruelty and, perhaps more importantly, the topic of suicide.