Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a thug who gathers debts for loan sharks, yet he cripples more than he collects. When a mysterious woman (Cho Min-soo) appears in Kang-do's life claiming to be his long lost mother, he is suspicious and physically humiliates her. Yet when she refuses to leave his side Kang-do softens and forms a bond with her. Yet is it too late to escape the impact of his behaviour?
AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR MOVING IMAGE: Repeatedly in Pieta, South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk shows terrified clients desperately hoping to avoid a looming visit by a brutally callous loan shark, Kang-do (Lee Jeong-jin). Waves of fear come off the debtors, as even a hint that he has arrived transforms panic into hysteria. Audiences may have the same reaction to a Kim Ki-duk movie: Pieta is formally credited as 'The 18th Film by Kim Ki-duk" and it’s the latest step in a divisive career that has been noted for its gory provocations and graceful redemptions.
Kim Ki-duk’s camera has a disgusted vitality
With Kim you might get 2000’s The Isle, which only requires mentioning the words 'fish hooks' to make those who have seen it blanch, or the soulful lyricism of 2004’s 3-Iron. The confrontational style of the former dominates this new work, even if the latter’s emotional transformation lurks in the bloody scenario. Pieta also shows a different side of South Korea, unfolding amidst the narrow alleyways and artisanal machine shops of Seoul’s Cheonggyechen district, where machine parts are hand-tooled. If this was the building block of an economic miracle, it’s now a nightmarish relic, and the machinery is soon put to contrary use.
A disaffected, hulking loner, Kang-do’s method of collecting debts in arrears is to make use of an insurance policy his victims have taken out with their loan shark – when they default, he injures them in a fake industrial accident and the payout clears their debt. Hands are forced into slicing blades and backs are permanently broken as Kim depicts the uncaring extremes of capitalism, with Kang-do as its uncaring representative.
Having established the character without a trace of family or affection, it’s no surprise that when the middle-aged Mi-son (Jo Min-soo) arrives, claiming to be the mother who abandoned Kang-do as a baby, she’s greeted with dismissive disdain and then physical punishment. Dedicated to the point of fanaticism, she scurries around the sneering disbeliever, trying to duplicate the rituals of a family in a blackly comical manner which soon moves from cooking meals to providing sexual satisfaction.
The film’s allusions to religious dedication are pointed – in one scene Kang-do attempts to feed his companion part of his own body – but there’s a genuine connection between the pair formed amidst the creepy, sometimes shocking, interaction that is felt in the way Jeong-jin’s body acquires a sense of longing, or the haunted gaze of Min-soo. The criminal is a beast who discovers his emotions, however tangled they are, and it provides a humanist subtext to the offhand cruelty and debasement.
Kim Ki-duk’s camera has a disgusted vitality, but the story acquires a plot-driven focus more reminiscent of the director’s compatriot, Park Chan-wook, when the slowly thawing Kang-do is abandoned a second time by his mother when she suddenly disappears. Revisiting his many victims in the belief that one of them is taking revenge on him, he tears into lives he’s already ruined instead of showing regret. This horror movie as matriarchal melodrama reaches a fever pitch, and even if the ideas are bluntly composed, they nonetheless resonate.