Kim Ki-duk’s “Pieta” has the usual strengths and weaknesses I have witnessed from his films. While watching the movie at the local theater at last night, I found its premise absurd and preposterous, but I and the audiences somehow took seriously what was happening on the screen. While there is some morbid humor in this dark and brutal morality tale of guilt and redemption, the movie treats a strange relationship at the center of its story with strict seriousness, and I was drawn to its drama while cringing at its brutality.
Many brutal deeds in the film are committed by its unlikable hero Kang-do(Lee Jeong-jin). Kang-do(‘Kang-do’ means ‘robber’ in Korean, by the way) works as a debt collector for some loan shark, and he is someone you don’t want to mess with especially if you happen to borrow the money from his boss. Even if his poor debtors really have no money to pay back, he gets the money back by any ruthless means necessary. These unfortunate debtors usually work at the metal shops located on the narrow alleys of Seoul, so they are forced to get their hands or feet injured by their machines for paying him back through the insurance money they will acquire. During one comic but cringe-inducing moment, one debtor nervously asks him to cut both of his hands instead of only one hand because he needs more money to pay his debts and support his baby to be born.
Kang-do’s life is as barren as his debtors’. While his home looks a little more comfortable, he has lived alone in his apartment. He cooks for himself, and he usually brings live animals to his home for his dinner. Seriously, I do not understand why he prefers to buy a live chicken and then butcher it instead of just purchasing a dead one at a supermarket, but I guess this savage behavior solely exists for representing his beastly nature.
On one day, his life is disrupted by the sudden appearance of one mysterious woman(Cho Min-soo), who claims to be his mother and apologizes to him for abandoning him not so long after he was born. Resentful toward his mother he does not remember, he does not believe any of her words and brusquely rejects her, but she keeps coming to him. She slowly insinuates herself into his daily life while behaving like a mother who tries to compensate for her unforgivable fault in the past. Though he harshly treats her, she sticks to him while doing what mothers usually do for their dear sons. She cooks for him, and she says genially to this detestable man who has probably never experienced love or kindness for a long time.
Revealing or saying little about themselves, the characters of Kim Ki-duk’s films are usually fascinating to observe for how they behave rather than who they are. The characters of “Pieta” are no exception; we do not know a lot about them, but what happens between them is a darkly compelling drama. There is quite a disturbing scene where Kang-do cruelly attempts to violate her with his own twisted logic, and you may wonder how much she can tolerate him, if she is indeed who she seems to be. Induced by her love without condition, Kang-do slowly reveals a vulnerable child with lots of hurts inside him; he eventually finds himself depending on her care, and they momentarily have a nice time together as a mother and her son.
Is she really his mother? I don’t dare to tell anything about that matter for not spoiling your entertainment, but let’s say that I did not lose my interest while the movie changed its direction in the middle of the story for the reason you may easily guess in advance. Its second half is less engaging and less focused because of that, but the director/writer Kim Ki-duk provides a very realistic background for his relatively unrealistic story, and the gray, destitute underbelly of Seoul is vividly conveyed to us through its shabby metal shops and dirty alleys. His films have been well-known for their unflinching attitude to brutal violence, but “Pieta” thankfully takes a restrained approach to its equally savage violence while retaining its emotional impact intact. When I watched gleefully over-the-top violence in “The Expendables”(2012) right before watching this movie, I could have some chuckles, but I discovered that there was nothing laughable about the frighteningly realistic violence in “Pieta” even when it does not present it on the screen.
The tension in the drama largely depends on the simple but fearless performance by Cho Min-soo, who deftly maintains the elusive side of her character even at the most emotionally anguished moment. You can feel the genuine emotions from her face, but you can never be sure about where they come from. Although Lee Jeong-jin feels strained and miscast compared to his co-actress, at least he supports her well during several tough scenes between them. Their characters may look silly when they behave like a mother and her little son, but we come to accept the emotional bond forming between them.
Although he recently went through a rough time, Kim Ki-duk remains as one of the most interesting South Korean directors along with Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and Hong Sang-soo. I have watched most of his works, and I admired many of them while recognizing their disturbing side. The unforgettable scene involved with fish hooks in “The Isle”(2000) still makes me flinch whenever I recall it, and “Bad Guy”(2002) was another disturbing relationship between a violent man and a woman who is suffered and degraded by him while stuck with him. After his best work “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring”(2003), his subsequent films became a little more gentle, but they are still the movies tough to watch. I did not like his previous work “Arirang”(2011), a self-portrayal documentary which can be called his version of “I’m Still Here”(2010), because I found it both painful and embarrassing to watch him on his supposedly bad days, but I hoped everything would be soon all right for him.
Well, it seems things are going well for him again now. Last year, he had a moderate but satisfying success with “Poongsan”(2011), which was produced and written by him. “Pieta”, his 18th work, is currently in competition with other films at the Venice Film Festival while also being released at South Korean theaters on this weekend at present. I do not think it is one of his best films because of its several flaws, but I must say it is nice to see that this talented director is still capable of making a movie with conviction, power, and several interesting things to talk about.