An interesting film destroyed by its subtitles
[This review was originally posted as part of our freaking awesome coverage of the New York Asian Film Festival. It is being reposted here to remind NYC residents that they can see it for free down in Tribeca on Tuesday, January 15. For more information, head over here.]
Normally I try not to let translations affect my impression of a movie. The occasional typo can be irritating, but it won't usually ruin a film. I do this so my review can be as accessible to Korean readers as it can be for English-speaking ones. Maybe I'll mention the poor translation at some point, but it won't be a factor in my final opinion.
Until now. The King of Pigs has without a doubt the worst translation I have ever come across in a film, and it is beyond unacceptable. I truly hope that every single person involved with the translation its approval has been fired, publicly shamed, and blacklisted from ever working again. It's that bad.
If you speak Korean, King of Pigs is absolutely worth watching. If you don't, you'll want to tear your hair out.
The King of Pigs (Dwaejiui Wang | 돼지의 왕)
The King of Pigs is the antithesis of Starry Starry Night. Where that film acknowledges the terrors of middle school but looks optimistically at the future, The King of Pigs is consumed by it. Although it takes place years and years after middle school, Kyung-Min finds himself in a terrible position, having just killed his own wife, and he thinks back to his time and his friend Chul-Yi. He meets up with Jong-Suk, who he hasn't talked to since his first year of middle school. The two of them had been close with each other and with Chul-Yi. Kyung-Min needed someone to talk to, and he needed to talk about Chul-Yi.
The film goes back and forth between the past and the present, showing the relationship between the three of them, how it grew and fell apart. Teachers play a minimal role in the film, existing mostly to dole out punishment to those they deem worthy of it. But the actions of the teachers don't hold a candle to those of the other students. If this is what Korean schools are like, I am very thankful for not having grown up there. Some of the lower status students (particularly Kyung-Min and Jong-Suk) are consistently harassed and frequently beaten by the upper class students. There are all kinds of cruel pranks that they play, and the fact that they are let off for what they do when the students attempting to fight back are punished just made me angry.
Chul-Yi was an exception. Not only did he fight back, but he was capable of it, going so far as to put one of the upper class students in the hospital. It's never entirely clear why he's such a good fighter, but it doesn't really matter. His home life was terrible, and it was very clear that he was mentally unbalanced. His goal was to become a monster, a true evil being that would be the king of the pigs. Pigs, in this case, are the lower class, with dogs being the upper.
This is what I gleaned from the film, but is not necessarily what happened. Almost all of that information comes from the visuals of the film, not from the language. As I mentioned, this translation is terrible. Absolutely awful. It seemed to me like the script was just run through Google Translate and then just put onto the film before calling it a day. I wish I could say that was an exaggeration. Most of the subtitled films I have seen (at NYAFF and otherwise) have imperfect translations. Some are worse than others, but they usually just seem like they needed another proofreader rather than an entirely different translator. I can't believe that an actual person who was hired to translate this film could have failed so thoroughly at understanding the English language. At least 95% of the sentences spoken/translated in The King of Pigs have some kind of glaring grammatical error. It could be more like 99%. Every once in a while, there would be a run of a couple sentences that all made sense, and it would be almost as shocking as the horribly poor language usually on display.
But even in those rare cases where it did work, the translation was just boring. I can't say whether or not there was any kind of meaning behind the Korean script, but I have trouble believing that it was as soulless as the English (if you can even call it that) makes it out to be. I never found myself interested in the language, because there was nothing to be interested in. When words weren't being put in the wrong order or simply made up for the sake of some unknown, terrible reason, they were just words.
I want to reiterate what I said at the beginning: I hope the translator has been fired and blacklisted. That person is in every way incapable of doing their job, and director Yeun Sang-Ho should sue that person for lost ticket sales. I have already convinced at least one person already to not see the film because of the translation. It's quite possible this review will convince a few more. I probably sound like I'm exaggerating the problem, and that it couldn't honestly be this bad, but it is. It really, really is.
And it's not funny either. Maybe if The King of Pigs were something else, I could laugh at its utter failure in the same way I can laugh at a poorly dubbed Kung Fu movie, but I can't here. The King of Pigs is a very serious film, and the events that take place all tend towards the horrific, and I'm sure the dialogue highlighted the gravity of some of the things. But in a key moment, when a character announces, "I will suicide myself," I couldn't just take it in stride. The translation actively works against the film every step of the way, goading the viewer into figuring out what it's trying to tell you while it's already gone onto something else.
But in those moments when I was able to get past the subtitles, I was struck by the The King of Pigs's visual style. It's strange, and it took me a little while to come to grips with its occasionally amateurish look. Fortunately, I got over that hump and didn't even think about it for the entire second half. The film was independently funded by the director, so the technology behind the film is less than stellar, and that was obvious. Muddy textures, weird uses of ugly 3D models, and other issues are abound, but all of that can be looked past, because what's onscreen is compelling (and occasionally difficult to watch). The movie is very violent, and the violence is viscous. The animated nature of the film means that creating disorienting environments or moments can happen more naturally and more easily within the film. That is taken full advantage of. If nothing else, it's definitely interesting.
If you can understand Korean, I implore you to see The King of Pigs. From what I was able to gather, the story is compelling, and it goes to some pretty shocking places. If you can understand the story the way it should be, I think you will find a lot to like, even though I can't promise you will "enjoy" it. If you do see it that way, please come back and tell me what it's really like. I honestly want to know. But if you're like me and have to deal with the subtitles, don't waste your time. I had to see it through to the end, but you really won't want to.
[Editor's note: I do not know for sure if the screening that is taking place in Tribeca has the same subtitles as the version I saw, so it is possible that you can disregard what I said. Due to the whole "free" thing, it may be worth seeing regardless.]