Yeon Sang-Ho has been gaining attention as the director of the Korean zombie thriller Train To Busan, but it’s actually the director’s live action debut after carving out a career in feature animation.
Yeon’s anime films have tapped into a very specific style of bleak, brutal stories that explore the most deplorable elements of humanity, and especially in Korean society. Designed for engagement rather than entertainment, they’re certainly not for everyone, and their combination of social insight and utter repulsion forcefully challenge viewers both morally and aesthetically. (Also: human violence to cats and dogs. I know that’s enough for some of you to punch out now).
The King Of Pigs (2011)
Under somewhat curious circumstances, a pair of old school chums, Kyung-min and Jong-suk, meet up after many years and reminisce on their horrifying middle school experiences. In those days, they were known as the “pigs” – the dregs of the classroom, constantly bullied by their abusive classmates. On the other side of the scale were the children of wealthy parents who bribed the schoolteachers with “gifts” to buy favoritism in the classroom. Their tale unfolds a disgusting torrent of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, and viewers will quickly find themselves shocked and enraged at the cruelty and injustice they’ve endured.
The boys have few friends, but their classmate Kim Chul stands up for them, physically beating back the bullies. In all of cinema, there’s perhaps nothing more satisfying than seeing bullied characters beat the living shit out of their oppressors, but The King Of Pigs isn’t interested in satisfying or entertaining you. It’s about exposing human rottenness. Kim Chul isn’t a hero; he’s just a violent and mentally unstable child from a broken family. And as the film progresses, we see that this becomes true in many ways of the other boys as well – molded my poverty and unfairness, the children who were victims become embittered, hateful, and violent; and both their middle school story and contemporary lives are destined to end badly.
The King Of Pigs is a miserable, joyless, incessantly vicious and ugly piece of work. Yet, I can’t outright say that it’s bad, in the sense that I think it accurately accomplished exactly what it set out to do. It’s a scathing indictment of social and economical castes, and emphatically screams “Bullshit!” on ugly aspects of Korean society. The evil is institutional, yes, but ultimately it’s you (Koreans) who are at fault for letting this happen. Literally every character in the film is detestable. It’s a hit piece, and in that sense, it’s practically genius in its execution. But even while understanding and appreciating the film’s motivations and theme, and its seething rage against bullying and social injustice – at the same time, I absolutely hated the experience and can’t imagine I would ever subject myself to this torture again.
The film’s animation is hideous, both intentionally and incidentally. Yes, there is an underlying ugliness to the designs in which everyone deserves to be punched in the face, but there’s also a technical problem that makes things worse. While visually a hand-drawn style, the films’ characters are modeled and animated in 3-D. In single frames, this isn’t noticeable, but in motion, the movement is more automaton than autonomous, stilted and robotic. It looks absolutely awful, and only served to deepen my disdain for this movie.
The Fake (2013)
After the absolutely miserable experience of The King Of Pigs, I was really not looking forward to travailing through another emotionally draining slog from the same director.
In one sense, this does remain the case. This is indeed another brutal, cynical, dour affair with some truly detestable characters. But The Fake hit me in a pretty weird and personal place in which I could more readily appreciate it. Additionally, the animation is greatly improved over that of The King of Pigs – gone are the robotic movements. So that’s one major distraction eliminated.
The story deals with a faith-healing cult run by a gang of con artists, robbing gullible villagers of their savings. But it approaches the story in an unusual way – there are no heroes in this tale. Everyone’s a villain or victim – or both.
As a Christian, and particularly one who has observed faith as filtered through Korean culture, I care a lot about what this film had to say. I’ve attended a few Korean churches through the years, rolled my eyes at Korean ultra-emotionalism (weeping and wailing), and even known of family members who were briefly duped by a doomsday cult. These things may seem pretty wild and perhaps embellished or fictitious to outside observers when seen on the screen, but as a Korean, it’s my opinion that this is a pretty credible depiction of certain aspects of Korean religious practice.
In The Fake, a con artist takes advantage of an eminent domain crisis to lure many soon-to-be-displaced villagers into donating his “church” their savings. The congregation skews elderly, and many are attracted by his promise to pool the money to construct a new community for everyone where they can live out their remaining years in comfort. Hiring a naive young pastor as his stooge, he sets up elaborate services full of phony miraculous healings to demonstrate the power of God working through his organization, while feeding them twisted doctrines and scriptures designed to instill fear and manipulate the purchase of salvation.
What’s interesting is that the story doesn’t make a straightforward attack. Early on we’re introduced to a boorish, violent man who is quickly demonstrated to be an absolutely reprehensible human being. He terrorizes his wife, steals his daughter’s college savings, and speaks in a constant barrage of profane and abusive insults.
On a chance encounter at a bar, be picks a fight with the con artist running the church scam, and later learns who he is and what he’s up to, coupling that knowledge with the discovery that his wife, daughter, and most of the people he knows are members of that very church. And here I realized: This jerk is our protagonist. Yeon is deliberately showing the utter deplorability of the worst kind of people… by pitting them against the second-worst kind of people.
And hey, it’s not like things are much better here in the States. We aren’t so much into the weeping and wailing, but American churches are plagued with heresy – health-wealth gospels, faith-healing, and outright cults and scams — and not just from televangelists and megachurches. Right in my own area (Kansas City), there’s a couple of fairly well known ostensibly Christian cult organizations, and I’m sure many more that fly under the radar.
Like most Christians, I’m protective of my beliefs and get pretty upset about con artists and charlatans who abuse their influence, twist scripture and doctrine to suit their own self-serving means, and mislead followers into spiritual or financial ruin.
Is The Fake an indictment against Christianity or organized religion? Maybe. I don’t know where Yeon’s beliefs fall, but I also don’t fear the truth. I think The Fake reflects an accurate portrayal of religious cults and scams, and unlike the characters in the film, I don’t need to defend the monsters in some misguided attempt to “protect” my own faith. When Jesus saw greedy opportunists try to turn the Temple into a marketplace, He didn’t ask them for 10% of their proceeds to make it kosher. He flew into a rage, turned over their tables, and told them to GTFO. That’s the Christ I believe in.
The King Of Pigs and The Fake arrive on Blu-ray from Olive Films marking the debut of their new Oribu (a transliteration of “Olive”) Anime line.
Both films arrive in fairly basic editions with flat-spined cases, cover art that incorporates their original Korean poster designs, and almost nothing in the way of extras. The films are presented with Korean audio and subtitles. The subs on The King Of Pigs are excellent; not quite as good on The Fake (I think some of the grammar is supposed to reflect the speaking patterns of certain characters, but it’s distracting and not done in a way that reads naturally). The video quality on both discs looks great — in the sense that it accurately captures their ugliness.
Special Features and Extras
The King Of Pigs – Cast and Crew Interviews (15:11)
A fifteen-minute segment of behind the scenes interviews. Poor video quality; In Korean with subtitles.
Both The King Of Pigs and The Fake are emotionally-draining, gut-wrenching, violent and ugly stories. Both films have their merits and a strong moral core beneath all the nastiness. Viewers who want to be challenged rather than entertained will probably be able to appreciate what Yeon Sang-Ho is trying to do here. My experience is probably pretty unusual in that I despised one while appreciating the other.