Over the course of a 17-year career, in which he has made 18 films, Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk has often shocked and divided audiences with his singularly uncompromising visions of violent, often uncommunicative people, who are both the perpetrators and victims of torture, psychological torment, and physical and psychic distress. However, these extremely grim situations is married to a visual style that is quite strikingly beautiful, befitting his pre-filmmaking life as a painter. Kim has had, despite his international acclaim, a very antagonistic relationship to the Korean film industry, and a series of personally devastating events and perceived betrayal by others led him to take a self-imposed exile from filmmaking in 2008 following his film Dream. Kim emerged from this hiatus in 2011 with the raw and nakedly confessional self-portrait Arirang, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year.
Kim’s latest feature Pieta continues his re-emergence as a vital and celebrated world filmmaker, reinforced with his winning the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. Pieta marks a return to the violent and harrowing themes of his previous work, but with a much rawer and more unadorned aesthetic that matches the desperate and tortured characters that populate the film.
Pieta follows Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a collector and enforcer for a local loan shark in a run-down, industrial area of Seoul. He is merciless and implacable as he goes about collecting debts from those who have been loaned money at outrageous and truly criminal rates of interest. Kang-do is almost an automaton, gaining no pleasure from his work. Pleas and entreaties from the debtors fall on resolutely deaf ears and a quarry stone heart. Kang-do’s preferred punishment for those who fail to pay up is to cripple them after they have signed injury insurance claims, the payouts for which will settle the amounts they owe the loan shark. Kang-do, a loner, and a rather savage figure, prefers to slaughter live chickens for dinner rather than buy them from the supermarket, and gains his sexual release by humping the pillows in his sleep.
One day while he is on his rounds, he encounters Mi-sun (Cho Min-soo), a woman who begins following him and later forces her way into his apartment, where she begins cleaning up the place and preparing meals for him. Mi-sun claims to be Kang-do’s long lost mother, who abandoned him soon after giving birth to him. Kang-do doesn’t believe her at first, and he takes out his extremely violent nature on her, making her do humiliating things, and eventually rapes her. Still, Mi-sun doggedly remains with Kang-do, apologizing profusely for leaving him, and expressing her wish to make things up with him.
Kang-do comes around to fully accepting her as his mother, which causes him to begin to reform himself and give up his work. However, this makes Kang-do worried and paranoid that he will now become the victim of those he has hurt, who will now want to take revenge against him, and that his newly found mother will be a prime target for this revenge. Sure enough, the chickens eventually come home to roost in the most devastating way for Kang-do.
Pieta is crowned by an exceptionally fine performance by Cho Min-soo as the mother. Her emotional trajectory, even when her motives are not entirely clear, is given viscerally palpable form by this powerhouse portrayal. Lee Jung-jin impresses as well, making quite believable both Kang-do’s brutality and his transformation by what he perceives as unconditional love.
Pieta is very clearly and consciously a post-financial crisis film, with poverty and desperation for money the force which drives everything here, with people willing to go to any lengths to borrow money or pay back debts. Kang-so is called a “devil” several times by his victims, as someone who tempts with money and who exacts a terrible cost for this need. Pieta’s setting is a character in itself, with the metalwork shops and hulking machinery an appropriate environment for the cold, brutal violence that occurs here.
The raw camerawork, with its shaky handheld shots and awkward zooms, by Kim and cinematographer Jo Yeong-jik, provide an unsettling, documentary-like feel that matches the ugliness of the human behavior on display. While Pieta is not the best film Kim has ever made (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, 3-Iron, and Samaritan Girl are superior examples of Kim’s prodigious artistry), it’s a solid reminder of his singular worldview—quite fascinating if often not easy to watch.