From the moment he strides on-screen in Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta, it’s clear that Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a nasty piece of business who’s found both a calling and environ ideally suited to his violent tendencies.
A loan shark’s bagman, he makes his rounds in the squalid industrial sector of Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon neighborhood. Any customer who is unable to pay his debts—and the punitive 1000% interest—is tortured with the very equipment that provides his livelihood. An artful sadist, Kim largely refrains from graphic imagery, choosing instead to detail the mutilations through sickening sound design or holding on the victims’ anguished faces. Even more harrowing is when he cuts to Kang-do, revealing the unnerving callousness that allows him to lop off limbs just like a pint-sized sociopath might pluck the wings from a bug.
When not maiming and disfiguring others, Kang-do holes up in his flat, butchering animals and masturbating furiously. (Everyone needs a hobby.) One day, his lonely sanctum is invaded by Mi-seon (Cho Min-soo), who claims to be the mother who abandoned him decades earlier. Her compulsive dish-washing and tidying suggests that she’s seeking ways to express her contrition. Unfortunately for her, Kang-do has a particularly demeaning penance in mind.
As Kang-do tests Mi-seon’s resolve through various violations, some viewers will undoubtedly reach the limits of their tolerance for Kim’s button-pushing. Perhaps recognizing this, the writer-director curbs his attempts to shock (with the notable exception of a highly inappropriate handjob), opting to surprise us with plot twists instead. In turn, the downward spiral into degradation eases its velocity as Kim explores his characters beyond their respective pain thresholds and capacities for cruelty.
Watching Cho’s assured and alluring performance, it’s incredible that Pieta marks her onscreen debut. Initially contrite and reticent, Mi-seon incrementally manifests darker and more driven aspects of her personality, confirming that she and Kang-do are indeed cut from the same cloth.
Meanwhile, Lee convinces in his portrayal of a blunt force weapon who’s been knocked for a loop. For the first time, Kang-do considers the consequences of his actions and realizes that having someone else in his life leaves him vulnerable to reprisals. Consequently, he’s reduced to an anxiety-ridden mess in a hostile environment where any weakness is preyed upon.
And Cheonggyecheon itself plays a crucial role in Pieta. Kim spent his teenage years toiling in the district, and it’s evident that the impression it left on him is closer to a scar. His withering view of its cluttered corridors and dingy shops is augmented by the use of cold and ugly digital video. You need only examine the hopeless faces of its inhabitants to recognize that the game is always rigged for this underclass. Dreams don’t go here to die so much as to wander aimlessly through an endless labyrinth, forever taunted by the faint possibility of escape.
While the film’s title is taken from Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus’ corpse, there’s no greater power or higher authority in the film than the almighty South Korean won. “What is money?” someone asks. “The beginning and end of all things.” And so it is that every action in the film is motivated by greed or incited by bad dealings. There is no divine hand guiding the proceedings, only the machinations of the characters and the filmmaker who created them in his manipulative image.
Kim has a very specific wringer he intends to usher his pawns through and a particular course he’s plotted to it. Consequently, a complex, troubling character study slowly becomes a borderline conventional narrative with tactics lifted from Park Chan-wook’s playbook. As the pieces fall into place and previously inexplicable behavior begins to make a perverse sort of sense, Kim’s film sheds its ferocity and loses some of its potency. For all of its distastefulness, Pieta ultimately serves as satisfying comfort food for those viewers with an appetite for South Korean vengeance flicks.
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Writer: Kim Ki-duk
Stars: Lee Jung-jin, Cho Min-soo
Release Date: May 17, 2013