Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
(Korean with English subtitles)
Directed by: Yeon Sang-Ho
Written by: Yeon Sang-Ho
Voices of: Yang Ik-June, Oh Jung-Se, Kim Hye-Na, Kim Kkot-Bi & Park Hee-Bon
I really don’t review a whole lot of anime on this website and there are a couple of reasons for that decision. The primary one being that by some unknowable and unstoppable force, I am kept from enjoying or fully investing in most anime films/TV shows. KING OF PIGS is one of the rare anime exceptions that I will make because the story behind this film sounded intriguing from the get-go. As opposed to any of the over-the-top shenanigans or exaggerated visual quirks that one usually expects from anime, KING OF PIGS very much plays itself off as a dark, accomplished drama that just happens to be told in the form of anime. I don’t think I’ve said the word anime enough in this opening paragraph so let me state it one more time. Anime. Moving on…
Kyung-Min is a man driven into bankruptcy and decides to kill his wife as a result. Keeping a calm demeanor, Kyung-Min then contacts his best friend from middle school, Jong-Suk. The two meet up and have a casual conversation about how much they’ve changed over the years. As their night together goes further along, the troubled teenage years of both Kyung-Min and Jong-Suk are revealed through flashbacks from their middle school experience. Both boys went through traumatizing events and their sudden reunion will take a disturbing turn before the night is over.
KING OF PIGS is very much a story that could have been told in a live-action format and would have been made all the more disturbing for it. However, the anime approach offers two crucial benefits here. The first of which is that there’s a little blanket between this actually being a too harshly realistic piece of cinema. The story being told is one that’s full of intense violence and abuse. Neither of these things are glorified in the slightest, but the fact that this is animated lends itself as a thin cushion to the brutal blows of human darkness being hammered upon your eyeballs. The second benefit is the animation angle also plays off a couple of visuals that would have been far too silly in a live-action take on this material. A primary example comes in a talking dismembered cat hallucination that’s disturbing here, but would have been downright comical in a non-animated feature.
It’s probably very apparent by now that KING OF PIGS is rife with mature themes and depressing social commentary. Neither of these are too subtle in the context of the film, but that’s not necessarily an issue. The story is essentially a horrible coming-of-age tale combined with a painful reunion. Think of a really messed up version of STAND BY ME where nobody gets a happy ending or learns a valuable life experience. There’s a very LORD OF THE FLIES/CHOCOLATE WAR-ish element to how the middle school scenes play out. Primal instincts of everyday savagery as well as “becoming an even bigger monster to beat the monsters” are omnipresent through both timelines.
Slight flaws in KING OF PIGS come in the non-linear storytelling. There are moments where the present is suddenly shifted to the past without warning, only one scene was severely jarring in its actual shift to the past and another was distracting in how it seemed a bit pointless. However, the combination of past and present narratives work for the most part. It also certainly doesn’t hurt that this film is tacking very heavy and relevant themes that are always considered taboo…especially when you throw children into the mix.
By default, KING OF PIGS is the best anime film I’ve seen thus far, because it’s the only anime film that I’ve been able to stick with from beginning to end. The story might be too dark for some viewers to handle and that’s completely understandable. This is a disturbing film about depressing issues with an ugly view on the world. Not everybody makes it through school unscathed by their peers and some damaged people let those experiences ruin the rest of their lives. Haunting in its unapologetic message and sheer nastiness, KING OF PIGS is bound to stick with you for days after viewing it.