Originally published as part of a Sight & Sound piece on the London Korean Film Festival.
If Lee Dae-hee’s Padak is undoubtedly harrowing and may well put younger viewers off eating fish for life, it does still come with something like a happy ending, whereas Yeun Sang-ho’s extraordinary The King of Pigs (Dae gi eui wang), made for an exclusively adult audience, leaves little room for anything but abject bleakness, despite its essentially similar themes and allegorical intent. Here, instead of a fish tank, we get the claustrophobic milieu of a middle school where pupils’ social differences are played out through the ‘class’ conflict of vicious bullying, leaving irreparable scars. When we first meet 30-year-old one-time schoolfriends Jong-suk and Kyung-min, the former is still being humiliated in the workplace, and has just beaten up his girlfriend in a jealous rage, while the latter has just murdered his own wife in the wake of business bankruptcy.
As these two haunted, hopeless men meet for the first time in 15 years, they reminisce about their old schoolfriend Chul, a disturbed outsider who always hit back hard against the three downtrodden boys’ more privileged tormentors – yet just as they avoid all mention of their present circumstances, Jong-suk also suppresses a key part of Chul’s tragic story.
As the grim truth eventually outs, we bear witness to a hidden legacy of oppression, violence and despair from which there can be no easy escape, and which reflects the hierarchies that continue to stratify Korean society. The King of Pigs is a relentlessly depressing affair, but so compelling and complex in its telling, and so elegantly austere in its animation, that you’ll want to see it at least twice.
© Anton Bitel