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“Pieta” marks the 18th film from Korean auteur and agitator Kim Ki Duk, following up on his exceptionally personal and enjoyably bizarre 2011 Cannes winning documentary “Arirang”, which he made as part of a 3 year self-imposed exile from the industry. The film sees Kim returning to the same grim territory in which he made his name, dealing with violence, perversion, anger and angst in a harsh tale of a brutal loan shark and a woman claiming to be his mother. With Lee Jung Jin (“Troubleshooter”) and Jo Min Su in the lead roles, the latter taking Best Actress at the Daejong Film Awards for her performance, the film saw Kim continuing his prize winning streak, picking up the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, being the first Korean production to have done so.
Lee Jung Jin plays Kang Do, a particularly unpleasant debt collector, who makes money by crippling his debtors and cashing in on their insurance payouts, seeming to take pleasure in the pain and suffering he causes. His life is thrown into turmoil when one day a woman (Jo Min Su) turns up at his door, claiming that she is the mother who abandoned him as a child. Understandably suspicious and tormented, Kang subjects her to a variety of punishments to try and call her bluff, but gradually comes round to the idea that she might be telling the truth. As her unconditional love slowly seeps through into his heart and opens his eyes to the world, he starts to become paranoid that one of his victims is planning vengeance.
“Pieta” really does see Kim returning to his roots, taking place against a squalid background of dirty alleyways, rundown shacks and cramped machine shops, and exploring themes of loneliness, self-abuse and hatred. Given its mother-son subject matter, the film unsurprisingly plays out very much like an especially bleak and tense Greek tragedy, its drama hard hitting and harsh throughout, and much more grounded and depressingly human than in some of Kim’s recent outings like “Dream” or “Breath”. Through this, it works very well as a revenge drama of sorts, with a mid-film twist which though predictable is used expertly by Kim to dig even deeper and heap on even more agony. Though reasonably straightforward in narrative terms (at least by his own standards), the film is still ambiguous and at times abstract, Kim as usual leaving the viewer to make up their own mind on his use of religious imagery and capitalist metaphor. Although none of this is anything new for those familiar with the director’s works, the film feels fresh and more mature, Kim seeming to have been blessed with renewed vigour following his exile.
Where the film really hits home is through the depth of its characters, with both Kang and his mother being rich and multi-layered characters, Kim fleshing them out subtly and through small details in their behaviour rather than manipulative back stories or exposition. There’s a lot left unsaid and for the viewer to discern, and this adds to the tension and to the depth of the fascinatingly twisted relationship at the film’s core. The film lurks unrepentantly in moral grey areas, and though Kang is a devilish brute, the viewer is never allowed to forget that he is also a human being, who himself has suffered terribly, and who is by no means devoid of emotion. Thanks in part to an excellent performance by Lee Jing Jin, equal parts sneering barbarity and touching vulnerability, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him, and the film is at times acutely uncomfortable to watch as a result. Jo Min Su is similarly on impeccable form as the mysterious mother figure, and their shifting bond, defined by a disconcerting mixture of passion and misery, is powerful and moving.
“Pieta” is a very dark film indeed, and features some extremely tough scenes, enough so to mark it as being not for everyone. Though Kim keeps much of the violence and blood out of shot, the film is unflinchingly nasty and callous in relentless and ruthless fashion, leading up to a gruesome last scene which sticks in the memory for some time. Worse still is the film’s sexual violence, which though never exploitative in the least, is hard to stomach and will likely prove too perverse and distasteful for some viewers. This having been said, it’s the film’s emotional and psychological violence which punish the viewer more than its visceral scenes, and this makes it difficult for even hardened souls to escape its many horrors.
“Pieta” is not only a triumphant return to dark drama for Kim Ki Duk, but one of his best films to date, no small praise given the unfailing quality of his output. Though undeniably a tough watch, it’s a film which succeeds fully on both an emotional and artistic level, and which again confirms Kim as one of the most talented directors working in Korea and indeed the world today.
Ki-duk Kim (director) / Ki-duk Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Min-soo Jo … Mi-Son
Eunjin Kang … Hoon-Chul’s wife
Jae-rok Kim … Monk
Jeong-jin Lee … Gang-Do
Jin Yong-Ok … Shop Owner in Wheelchair