“The most painfully challenging movie I’ve seen, yet also the most rewarding provided you can stomach it.”
GRADE: 5/5 (A)
by Richard Rey
Pieta’s setting in an exhausted district of Seoul almost feels post-apocalyptic; mass suicides taking place brought about by a depressed economy in which impoverished metalworkers are unable to pay insurance claims on their loans to organized crime lords. Instead, they live in fear – always vigilant of the local enforcers – one of which we come to know up close and personally.
A sadistic bloodthirsty machine, Gang-do (Jeong-jin Lee) washes his hands of the blood of his debtors with rinse, lather, repeat steadiness. Allegorical by nature, we are left to contemplate the jet black revenge-dramas rich symbolism as it unfolds, driven by a bizarre, dizzying tonality. Christian motifs underscore the eventual mother-son relationship between the savage enforcer and a woman, Mi-son (Min-soo Jo, tantalizingly convincing), asserting herself as the long lost mother of the abandoned orphan. Its title draws reference to the somber portrait of the Virgin Mary clutching the baby Jesus, paralleling the two juxtaposed bonds.
Director Ki-du Kim, among the greatest provocateurs of Korean cinema, allows the lens to wander down tight alleyways and into the harrowing depths of the human psyche, unraveling at once a disturbing yarn without regard to personal-space – the claustrophobic camerawork is particularly suffocating, intensifying the unspeakable crippling of the victims of the emotionally numb Gang-do. Indeed, the blank-faced orphan does not feel – a sense of dehumanization runs so thick in his blood it’s difficult to watch.
So deep does it course that to break this estranged woman’s maternal spirit he commits the most despicable vice imaginable, forcing us to witness one of the most excruciatingly honest rape scenes in cinema, evincing the completion of the man’s desensitization, his perverted alpha-dominance the cause of her utter shame and humiliation. And then he winces, her profound love sparking in him a flicker of emotion that slowly transforms the brute to a being, the savage to a savior, the muscle to a heart; yet all to his demise when he becomes incapable of violent acts as a debt-collector. Sensing his emotional vulnerability, the crippled metalworkers strike while the irons hot by seeking revenge.
Ki-du Kim refuses to back down, tying revenge, redemption, abandonment, reconciliation, greed and generosity into this visually captivating moody melodrama that presents no easy answers. And while these themes are slapped into us time and again, we can forgive the filmmaker for his overeager ambition.
Perhaps the most astonishing feat of the film is that Kim somehow manages to win us over by means of sincere perversion – Oedipal masturbation doesn’t seem disgusting but rather demonstrates the unyielding labors of a mother to gain back the love of her lost son. As pitch-black as the New York slums of Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, Pieta forces us to answer some of life’s most difficult questions without pile-driving us with pontification. The most painfully challenging movie I’ve ever seen, yet also the most rewarding provided you can stomach it.
Runtime: 104 min
Director: Ki-duk Kim
Writer: Ki-duk Kim
Stars: Min-soo Jo, Jeong-jin Lee, Ki-Hong Woo
Theatrical Release: May 17th, 2013
Distributor: Drafthouse Films