Korean animation, or Han-guk Manhwa Aenimeisyeon, has generally received a fairly limited distribution outside of Korea, which is perhaps surprising considering the sheer amount of animation product created in the country, predominantly for Japanese and US studios (much of The Simpsons is made in Korea). So the release of The King of Pigs, the feature film debut of director/writer Sang-ho Yeon gives us the opportunity to explore a huge technological and artistic industry on its own conceptual and artistic terms. The result is one of the most tense animated features for many a year, although be aware that it is thoroughly disturbing. The human to pig related imagery is an integral part of the film but it is definitely psychological and not fantastical in nature which makes the actuality of on-screen events all the more shocking in their believability and brutality.

School days are the best days of your life? Well no, as two acquaintances, Jung Jong-suk (Yang Ik-june and Kim Kkot-bi) and Hwang Kyung-min (Oh Jung-se and Park Hee-bon), who haven’t met in over a decade, recall their classroom friendship, along with its associated terrors and conflicts, years after they have left the so-called learning environment and have sought to maintain adult employment. Hwang Kyung-min is in a lot of trouble – he’s just killed his wife (although he has little memory of the act) following the crash of his business. But his school memories, despite the fifteen year gap, are all too easy to recall. Hwang and Jung went to a good school but one where the pupils had different backgrounds, some of whom had parents who had to find whatever means they could to pay for their sons’ education. And then there were the rich kid bullies, ones who adored mocking, beating and humiliating the so-called pigs. But the poorer kids found an unexpected messiah in the shape of virtually invincible antagonistic schoolfellow Chul (Kim Hye-Na), who could savagely disperse any bullies in a manner that was both immediate and savagely inventive. But peer pressure within any group (the bullies or the bullied) can get out of control and the legacy of their actions from the past and memories of the present inevitably involve Chul, The King of Pigs. Pigs they were and it seems they still are – their lives are relevant, nasty and bloody.

The King of Pigs does not make for easy viewing. It is a brutal but absorbing thriller that sets the tone with its vicious murder at the outset and then develops as we come to understand the recollections of the protagonists, within a wider context, which becomes apparent as the film reveals the social, cultural and personal backgrounds of the lead characters. The years of schooling – ‘We will remember these years’ – are actually recollections of a savagery that is distinctly class based as well as personality based, as the bullies screech homophobic insults at their victims, whilst mocking their home lives. Chul is – to Jung and Hwang – the solution to their problems as his fighting ability is frightening; he simply jumps in to engage in savage violence whenever his moral cause requires him to. The students who are unable to stand up for themselves, those pupil pigs, porcine peasants to the bullies, have discovered a troubled benefactor within their midst.

The temptation, perhaps, with animated films, is to approach a subject or story in a manner that would be difficult to produce with live action filming or at least would not be available to the budget, and indeed much of The King of Pigs could have been filmed as a live action piece. But animation offers a different form of artistic and directorial control, which means that the story can be depicted consistently across a multitude of geographical locations or across time. The realisation of the artistic premise and its integration within the story (with brief fantastical elements that are related to the psychological perceptions of the protagonists) is what sends The King of Pigs beyond the realm of extreme or exploitation cinema and into an area that is distinctly more engaging from a cultural and social perspective, but is nevertheless shocking. Bourgeois brutal bullies beat the less financially and socially privileged kids with pleasure.

The King of Pigs makes for compelling and relentless viewing and uses the medium of animation to create a storytelling environment that is distinct in both its artistry and realisation. It is art anime extreme cinema that makes for tough – but worthwhile – watching.