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The King of Pigs (2022) Reborn Rich (2022): First Impressions
The King of Pigs is one of those dramas that went under the radar for me during its initial run and I only heard about it more recently when it was compared favourably with Blind by fellow enthusiasts of the genre. Even on a cursory level, it’s not hard to see why comparisons have been made. Both are police procedurals about violence perpetrated on children who grow up to be broken adults — some of whom plot and exact revenge on their perpetrators. But like many comparisons, they are similar only up to a point because most of these shows end up having different plots and going down different trajectories. Like many in the online space have said, The King of Pigs is the superior product although it too has inherent flaws. Any show where one of the characters is a detective who is investigating a case in which he/she has a personal stake in always ends up shooting themselves in the foot at some point. Needless to say, it is a beloved K drama plot device for the purposes of psychological exploration — a way of giving the lead character who is often the detective more depth. Overwrought emotions tend to cloud a person’s judgment and the lead character tips over into unprofessional behaviour because there is something about the case that brings out the worst in him. Or her. Mistakes ensue which are then conveniently used to drive the plot forward. Or worse still, put breaks on the story.
Despite reservations I have of King of Pigs, it is a relatively well-made show because the writer has obviously made the effort plotting a familiar story and taking a different route with the serial killer story. It doesn’t make a mystery of things that aren’t mysteries but focuses largely on the psychological dynamic between the detective and the perpetrator.
Jung Jong-suk (Kim Sung-gyu) is a thoughtful detective with the Seoul Metropolitan Police. One night he gets a call from a colleague, Kang Jin-ah (Chae Jung-an), based at another location, about a suspicious death. A woman has died and her husband has gone missing. So he’s Suspect No. 1. What’s relevant for Jong-suk in this instance is that missing husband (Kim Dong-wook) was a childhood friend and classmate from middle school and he’s sending messages to Jong-suk at the crime scenes to join him in his quest for revenge. At first Jong-suk is reluctant to open up to Detective Kang but eventually when the violence escalates, he admits that both Hwang Kyung-min and he were victims of school bullying twenty years earlier. The bullying was brutal. (It’s very detailed.) It was systematic. It was tacitly approved of by the homeroom teacher (the symbol of misused authority) and was used quite explicitly to perpetuate the existing class structure in Korean society.
Thematically this drama is quite a different beast to Blind. (No pun intended) The titular pig motif which in all likelihood takes a leaf out of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, presents the audience with a moral dilemma that is both more powerful and possibly more troubling. Human beings have a bent towards violence as a means of coercion and control. Violence begets more violence. Without restraints violence often escalates into something akin to bloody murder. As viewers our inclination is to root for the victims of violence and abuse — for them to see some justice done in this life. But what if these these victims reinvent themselves as perpetrators? There’s the rub. Do we then condone lawlessness and anarchy as a last resort so that justice will finally be achieved? What if this propensity towards violence is deeply embedded within every person in so far that nothing short of a miraculous intervention is needed to stem the tide of evil that’s inevitable once all the conditions are met?
Golding in his essay “Fable” stated that prior to the second world war “[he] believed in the perfectibility of social man; that a correct structure of society would produce goodwill”. However when the war was over, he wasn’t able to because he realised what evil human beings were capable of doing to other human beings. It wasn’t just the horrors of the holocaust or examples of totalitarianism. But educated, so-called civilised men did terrible things to each other with efficiency and skill. Golding furthermore observed that
“Man is a fallen being. He is gripped by original sin. His nature is sinful and his state perilous. I accept the theology and admit the triteness; but what is trite is true..
“I detest my country’s faults precisely because I am so proud of her many virtues. One of our faults is to believe that evil is somewhere else and inherent in another nation. My book was to say: you think that now the war is over and an evil thing destroyed, you are safe because you are naturally kind and decent. But I know why the thing rose in Germany. I know it could happen in any country. It could happen here.”
Like Lord of the Flies, King of Pigs is more than just a revenge story or a story about boys doing violence to each other when there are no social strictures in place. It too is a fable. King of Pigs, on the other hand, might point to the fact that how society is organised seems to be the root cause. In other words, bullying is a product of dysfunctional social relationships that is embedded in the system. It could be custom. It could be ideological. But in truth society isn’t some abstract entity. It’s made up of people with competing agendas who generally prioritise self-interest ahead of others. The best K dramas are the ones that understand that. Even in a so-called civilizing space like a school, where it is hoped that education would curb the worst excesses of human nature, the project to make people better is hubris at best. However, as John Taylor as shown in Weapons of Mass Instruction, modern public education has always been in the indoctrination and control business.
Having seen 7 episodes of this, it is my take that the drama would have been better served if it had been 2-4 episodes less. It starts off slow. Many of the flashbacks are more protracted than they really need to be for storytelling purposes. Frankly, the show leaves very little to the imagination. Perhaps the show is trying to steel man the case for revenge by showing the full extent of the abuse that was inflicted on the male leads and how that has had repercussions particularly for the deeply traumatized, guilt-ridden Kyung-min.
The show’s biggest selling point (and I sound like a broken record these days) are its male leads. The actors — Kim Dong-wook and Kim Sung-gyu — are both very good in their roles. Kim Sung-gyu’s performance fascinates me most because he is an affable and accommodating man who has a lot to lose if this case gets the better of him. One has the impression as the show goes deeper that the past for him is about secrets that he would rather not have to revisit. At every turn he resists Kyung-min’s attempts to make him remember their painful past and gradually loses control.
As with D.P. this is not a show that I would necessarily recommend to just anyone. At its core is a gripping tragedy but it is a self-selecting crowd that will find this compelling… and unforgettable.
I had no idea that Lee Sung-min was in Reborn Rich until he made his grand entrance on screen. The man is certainly having a really busy year appearing in three dramas and he’s actually fantastic in all of them. He certainly can pick scripts although with only 3 episodes broadcast, the jury is still out about the latest, Reborn Rich.
The drama begins with Song Joon-ki’s character in his first incarnation as Yoon Hyeon-woo,
a highly paid slave a highly efficient Planning Manager for the ridiculously entitled Jin family, co-heirs of the Soonyang business empire. He is the perfect stooge for his masters — he obeys unquestioningly and asks no questions. One day a subordinate discovers an old document that leads Hyeon-woo to the realisation that someone in the company has been embezzling money and creating a slush fund with it. This puts him in an untenable position and after some hesitation, he breaks one of his own cardinal rules by asking more questions than he should. He is sent overseas to retrieve the money. While there, he is murdered for his troubles.
In an interesting twist of fate, he finds himself transported back as his 10-year-old self but as Jin Do-jun (Kim Kang-hoon), the youngest member of the dynasty who didn’t previously exist. It’s the late 1980s and there’s a nice retro vibe. What makes this a lot more fun is that he retains all the memories of his Hyeon-woo self and begins ingratiating himself with the patriarch of the business empire, his grandfather Jin Yang-cheol played with gravitas by Lee Sung-min. Even in his youth, Do-jun shows a knack for making profitable investment decisions. With the benefit of hindsight and a deep insight into the family, Do-jun can get away with murder even. At this point his goal seems to be revenge or a complete take over of the family business. And why not? Even in his Hyeon-woo days, he was far more competent and was much more qualified to hold things together than most members of that family.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because the set-up is similar to Lee Joon-gi’s Again, My Life that came out earlier in the year. Still transmigration is hardly a new idea in Asian storytelling and it is often fertile ground for historical dramas. Although the premise seems to be treading on recognisable territory, it seems to me to have much more in common with Money Flower (2017) the revenge melodrama starring Jang Hyuk than it does with the aforementioned rebirth story where an idealistic prosecutor is given a second chance to accumulate evidence against the show’s biggest villain. The beginnings of Reborn also brought to mind an older J drama Karen naru Ichizoku (2007) that features Kimura Takuya although that one is set during the 1960s. Of course with only 3 episodes, it seems premature to come to any definitive conclusions as to what its influences and antecedents are.
Episode 1 gave me the impression that this was your standard makjang story of a chaebol family plotting and scheming to get the top spot. But I soon changed my mind about that. I definitely have to give the writer and the PD props for what they’ve achieved so far. This show has a lot more historical depth than I had expected. The first 3 episodes show plenty of promise. And I think the writer has done quite a bit of homework for this. The dialogue in particular is gold.
Aside from Song Joong-ki and Lee Sung-min at the helm, there’s also Shin Hyun-bin, Yoon Jae-moon and Jo Han-chul in the mix. Even Kim Kang-hoon makes a short-lived appearance. The show is bursting with experienced and talented actors. So it’s ultimately going to be about whether the script can hold it together until the end.
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