‘King of Pigs': Korean filmmaker Yeun Sang-ho explores dark side
Edgy, violent South Korean films have been making waves internationally for years, but the country’s animation sector has remained relatively narrow, devoted mostly to Disney-like fare — children’s fairy tales with substantial budgets and corporate backing.
But at this fall’s Busan International Film Festival, 33-year-old director Yeun Sang-ho drew attention with his first feature-length project: an animated, cold-blooded adult tale called “The King of Pigs” that explores the underside of human nature at an all-boys middle school in Seoul. The school is a microcosm of society, a harsh environment where there is no escape from constant bullying and violence.
“Life is unfair, and that’s the reality,” said Yeun, a chain-smoker with oversized glasses whose previous short films focused on life’s gloomier moments. “I just wanted to show what the current society is like.”
The director funded the $150,000 project himself, with assistance from various art foundations. The film, with computer and hand-drawn animation, is purposely crude and rough, with plenty of graphic head-turning moments.
Audiences have responded. The film won three awards at Busan and was hailed by leading South Korean film critic Lee Dong-jin as a “powerful force.” The film has since been released to general theaters, where it has done respectably, drawing 18,000 viewers, a sizable number in this nation for an independent film.
The positive reviews have prompted the film’s promoters to investigate foreign distribution. An English-language version of the film’s trailer is available on YouTube.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Seoul as the second of three brothers, Yeun was a huge fan of Japanese animated films and a regular viewer of the U.S. sci-fi series “The Twilight Zone.”
“Until I was about 15, I didn’t know that there was such an occupation as a director for animation films,” said Yeun. “But after watching several films of [legendary Japanese animator] Hayao Miyazaki, I could tell that this was work done by one person. That’s when I started to dream of becoming an animated film director.”
Yeun didn’t go to film school, instead receiving his training in drawing and Western arts at a university in Seoul. Yeun says he always was interested in the mysterious side of human nature. “I liked the movies that leave one stunned, and maybe a little sad.”
In his previous projects, Yeun explored the dark side of life with a bit of sarcasm. His two shorts, “Inferno” and “Love Is Protein,” have grim, eerie plot lines. In one, a man is skinned alive; in the other, an angel arrives to inform a man he will soon die.
“The King of the Pigs” begins with the sounds of a weeping businessman who has just strangled his wife to death. The bereft twentysomething killer decides there is a long-buried secret in his life that he needs to explore.
He seeks out a fellow misfit he hasn’t seen in years who shares the secret from middle school. The duo meets at a typical Korean barbecue place. Over shots of soju, they discuss their lives — past and present weaved together through their flashbacks of youth.
The terrible secret is how they chose to end years of mistreatment they’d endured as teens. Yeun’s animated classroom is populated by haves and have-nots — dogs and pigs. The dogs ceaselessly bully the helpless pigs, who are afraid to stand up for themselves.
The film’s violence is drawn from Yeun’s youth. As a middle-school student, he once witnessed a bully pouring his own urine over a young victim in a toilet stall — an image that appears in the film. In another scene, one pig wears his older sister’s Guess jeans to school. The boy’s family is so poor that it cannot afford to buy him a male version of the jeans, so he secretly wears his sister’s to school, where the dogs mock him and cut the jeans to pieces.
Eventually, a champion emerges among the pigs. Chul, a quiet kid in the corner, fights back against the dogs and soon rises as “the king of pigs.” Fellow pigs secretly dream of a coup led by Chul. “You have to become a monster to not live like a loser,” Chul tells the others.
The film shows Chul’s developing plan for revenge against the overlord dogs. “I wanted to talk about the cruel process of making a hero,” said Yeun.
Looking back on where he stood in his own school’s hierarchy, Yeun said, “I was a bystander among the pigs.” He drew his own likeness as a background character in the film.
As for violent animation, Yeun says he’s just getting started. “For my next film, I am going to explore the theme of faith in a church setting,” he said. “It will be more cruel and disturbing. I can’t wait.”
— Jung-yoon Choi
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