The King of Pigs won Fantasia Fest’s first Satoshi Kon Award in 2012. The first animated feature from Yeon Sang-ho, the acclaimed horror director behind Train to Busan, The King of Pigs has made the jump to live action and made another Fantasia First, this time as the first television series screened at the festival. Directed by Kim Dae-jin and written by Young Tak Jae, this limited series unsettles its audience as a slow-burning revenge thriller that feels even more poignant in live-action form.
In the series, a serial killer is on the loose and leaving cryptic messages at his violent crime scenes directly addressing a homicide detective, Jong-suk (Kim Sung-kyu). But the cryptic messages aren’t hiding the murderer’s identity. Instead, they’re drawing a direct link to his connection to Detective Jong-suk. His name is Kyung-min (Kim Dong-wook) and he’s the detective’s childhood friend, targeting those responsible for their misery when they were beaten, bullied and humiliated in middle school.
Tormented by a life of trauma and constant humiliation, Kyung-min takes pleasure in murdering his former tormentors. That said, Jong-suk, riddled with guilt for allowing the childhood violence to happen, can’t help but feel a little satisfaction even with the gruesome nature of the murders. Whether it’s seen as retribution, vengeance, or crime, Jong-suk has to bring Kyung-min in and stop the murders. Only the killer is always one step ahead of him and his colleagues.
The King of Pigs is a strong series because of how it uses violence. It doesn’t hold any of its punches. It hits hard and it keeps hitting repeatedly and never once sacrifices story or social commentary for shock value. Violence in The King of Pigs is a window into characters’ minds and motives, with each act tied to a specific plot element, never feeling out of place or tacked on just to startle. In fact, violence in horror, as much as in the action genre, exists to propel the story, unsettle, and elicit emotions from the audience. Director Kim is masterful at setting up violence in this series as something to call the audience towards introspection. He dares us to question our morality as Jong-suk questions his. Do these bad people who did bad things deserve it?
Violence is used to show brutality and retaliation, and it’s also used to show catharsis and trauma. It exists in The King of Pigs as a way to interrogate Kyung-min. Are we feeling empathy for his position? Are we going to justify it? Are we feeling sympathetic as he carves flesh off of a man who once violated him?
Calling what Kyung-min endured bullying seems too small of a word. More aptly, he was humiliated daily, made to harm himself, and was even sexually assaulted by his classmates. The flashbacks that reveal the violence Kyung-min suffered as a teen are worlds more unsettling than the gruesome murders he commits. The violence he faces as a teen feels suffocating. It’s painful to watch and the abject hopelessness that Kyung-min lives in is gutting. Truly, sitting through all four episodes back to back is a test of will, and the series never builds you back up.
As we see this transition to his adult life, it’s clear that he was never surrounded by kindness and even when he believed he was working through his pain and depression, you realize that he’s always been aware of how alone he was. There are no kind people around him, even his wife. And that realization causes the audience to almost root for him.
This is all done through a masterful mixing of flashbacks to the past and the present. No flashback feels out of place, due in large part to how they’re transitioned to and the content they hold. What could have felt like excessive exposition instead feels like a natural representation of the building blocks of how the characters arrived at the current moment. Never out of step, and unsettling poignant.
Director Kim plays with this across the episodes. He bounces the audience’s morality from one point to another, between reason and justifiable anger for someone who was failed by every person in his life. Even knowing the killer from the start, there is a mystery of emotion and trauma that is unfolded continually. Each turn reveals a new emotion, a new element, and a depth of pain to explore. Is standing there and doing nothing as harmful as the one enacting the violence? Is it okay to root for a killer brutalizing the people who brutalized him and haven’t changed? That’s for you to decide.
It’s hard not to compare the original to the adaptation, but with The King of Pigs, this isn’t a bad thing. The powerful elements of this live-action series succeed because it teases out and expands elements of director Yeon’s original work. It maintains the gore of the original while offering even more time to explore the social commentary by the pure nature of its format. Truthfully, this series is a success in every way, a look at how violence begets violence, and how every action we take builds or tears us apart piece by piece. While we’ve only seen a third of the 12-episode series at Fantasia, it’s clear that this one will knock expectations out of the park.
King of Pigs premiered its four episodes at Fantasia International Film Festival 2022 and isn’t currently available in the US.
King of Pigs Episodes 1-4
The King of Pigs maintains the gore of the original while offering even more time to explore the social commentary by the pure nature of its format. Truthfully, this series is a success in every way, a look at how violence begets violence, and how every action we take builds or tears us apart piece by piece. While we’ve only seen a third of the 12-episode series at Fantasia, it’s clear that this one will knock expectations out of the park.