The King of Pigs


Korean animation has skulked in the shadows for some time: South Korean animation houses have long performed the grunt work for countless popular US cartoons – from The Simpsons onwards – whilst homegrown efforts have always had to compete with the established heritage of the neighbours on the other side of the Sea of Japan. However, a quiet renaissance has occurred over the last few years and the Lord of the Flies-esque The King of Pigs is one such example.

Directed by débutante Sang-ho Yeon, it’s a grim morality tale, mostly told through flashbacks to a violent school classroom. We open on a woman, lying dead on a dining table. This is the wife of Kyung-ming, a depressive CEO, and in the wake of his business collapsing, it is implied that he murdered her. This sudden spark of barbarity compels Kyung-ming to reconnect with his old school friend, the leaden-eyebrowed Jong-Suk, now working as a downtrodden ghostwriter in a publishing company, his personal ambitions fading rapidly. The two men have not spoken in fifteen years, and together they softly recall their troubled years spent in middle school, where the roost is ruled by a triumvirate of bullies, known as the ‘dogs’.

The dogs spend their days delivering savage retribution to the ‘pigs’, the classmates unfortunate enough to be poorer or less intelligent than they. Then along comes Chul, an angry, fearless little boy who dares to challenge this perverse status quo; with Jong-suk and Kyung-ming at his side, he becomes the titular King. Chul, pure raging id, speaks confidently to the boys about accepting the evil that exists in all humans, and for a while it seems that revenge – a favoured theme in South Korean cinema – will rear its head. But this is less a bloody vengeance thriller in the Park Chan-wook mould than it is a bleak social satire on class.

The dogs often whisper of the “school’s atmosphere” being disturbed by the younger boys, and the script delivers biting critiques of the corrupting cancers worming their way through Korean society. The King of Pigs is also depicted in crisp, utilitarian animation, harnessing a neat hybrid of hand-drawn and computer-assisted techniques. You wonder, though, were it not for the brutal child violence, whether the material would be better suited to live-action. Most scenes are dialogue-centred and set in a single classroom. Fared against the ambitious spectacle of its anime cousins, the film is visually unmemorable. As it happens, much of the film struggles to sway your attention.

Yeon’s film builds slowly and surely but hits a midway point of extreme stagnation, and only in its closing minutes attempts a proper climax. Even this dénouement descends into overwrought melodrama for a rather predictable rooftop finale. With its weighty themes of power-plays and aspirational struggles, The King of Pigs has ambitious designs, but it’s ambition that could have furnished a more interesting and consistent story.

The King of Pigs is out on DVD today.

A Liar’s Autobiography


The late Graham Chapman, one-sixth of the legendary Monty Python comedy troupe, was a premium-grade bullshitter. The so-called ‘silliest Python’ once told a BBC reporter on the set of the Holy Grail that he was an extra (he was, of course, the lead actor). And thus it was for his 1980 autobiography, appropriately titled A Liar’s Autobiography, which shamelessly laid no claim to honesty or truthfulness, a stake further bolstered by the subtitle: “The Untrue Story”. Few narrators are quite so unreliable.

That same spirit of playful contrarianism is invoked in this uneven animated adaptation of the autobiography. All the original Pythons (except Eric Idle) lend their voices, including, uniquely, Chapman himself, having made several recordings of the book before his death in 1989. A Liar’s Autobiography is therefore significant in the Python oeuvre as being the first time he has “worked” with the rest of the group, Idle notwithstanding, in over twenty years.

Chapman’s voice, with that plummy Oxbridge enunciation, lends proceedings the weight of a certain shaky authenticity, even as its author defiantly shirks such fripperies as facts. To assuage any doubt as to the seriousness of proceedings, Chapman begins with an typically silly account of his birth, claiming his parents were “were expecting a heterosexual black Jew with several rather amusing birth deformities as they needed the problems.”

Recruiting fourteen separate animation studios for the project, the directing team of Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett essentially cobble together a series of vignettes to tell this spurious life story. Animation is often a useful tool for depicting the many surreal flights of fancy – a segment set in space works particularly well – but on the whole, it’s structurally loose and haphazard. The switch between animation styles and techniques, so frequently and without warning, can be disorientating, and difficult to get a purchase on.

Just when you settle into a computer-generated sequence of World War II fighter pilots, you are quickly thrust away into a dark, hand-painted depiction of alcoholism and drugs. As the Pythons themselves discovered with sketch-based films like And Now For Something Completely Different and The Meaning of Life, such an incohesive approach is doomed to fail, and Chapman’s original comic thrust is lost in the tangle.

Python fans, who have clamoured for any sort of reunion since the group effectively disbanded upon Chapman’s death, will no doubt be thrilled to see so many of their heroes on-screen again, and may well be cheered by the prevailing essence of silliness that made the Pythons great. But even the superfans would be forced to admit that A Liar’s Autobiography never quite scales the heights of comedy that its subject accomplished.

And crucially, we don’t go away learning any more about Graham Chapman, the man. Rather than being left with a clearer picture – however silly – A Liar’s Autobiography fosters a messy, colourful memory in your mind: surreal, psychedelic, sometimes funny, but frustratingly empty beneath the surface, a disappointingly inadequate tribute to a great comedian.

Some of my favourites from the London International Animation Festival

This past week, I’ve been practically living in the Barbican’s lovely subterranean cinema, soaking myself  in animation goodness thanks to this year’s London International Animation Festival, which I’ve been covering for the folks over at Cine-Vue.

It’s been tremendous.  A full report will go up on Cine-Vue in the next few days here’s the full report on Cine-Vue, but for posterity’s sake, I thought I ought to save some of the best films I’ve seen here, if only so I can remember them myself.  They’re all short, most under ten minutes and none over twenty.  If you have the capacity, I recommend you watch them in HD, and full screen.  In no particular order:

NUIT BLANCHE – slow to begin, then hits you in the face like a sack of rocks. Stunning. Worth watching the making of – you’ll be surprised how much is computer generated.

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COURS TOUJOURS – fast, funny, and very French.

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BIKE RACE – a real-life love story, based around documentary audio.  Sweet and charming.

[Read more…]

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