Pieta is one of the most challenging films I’ve seen in the past year. It is not for the faint of heart, and it’s not likely to reward a casual viewer. It isn’t graphic, but it is horrible, in many ways, and in many scenes. Superficially, one might call it “offensive,” but only if you ignore the soup of negative introspective emotions — shame, regret, grief — that the film swims in.
Director Kim Ki-duk still seems to be exorcising his demons. A previous film, Arirang, was essentially a videotaped diary made by the director during his period of reclusion after an actor on one of his sets nearly died while filming a scene. Kim wasn’t sure if he would ever making movies again. He was deeply searching his soul, agonizing over his mistakes, and spilling it all on the (small) screen. While living as a hermit he watched his earlier film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring, a beautiful, deeply felt Buddhist meditation on regret (and one of my all-time favorite movies) that brings him to tears. If you know either of those previous works, you might be ready for Pieta.
A loan shark, Lee Kang-do (Jeong-jin Lee), preys on the weak. He operates in the last dirty, industrial alleys of a city being taken over by skyscrapers. Kim mentions the view from above, showing the encroachment of money. Strangely, most of the exterior shots have the sound of hummingbirds.
Kang-do charges usurious rates — 10 times the principal after only 3 months — then when his marks can’t pay, he disfigures them and collects the insurance. Since disfigurement is worth more than death, he leaves in his wake a string of cripples. Some of them prefer suicide, some live, but in terror of Kang-do and anyone else they are in debt to.
Our protagonist is a violent person, but he almost never gets his own hands dirty. He invokes the terrible power of fate to do his dirty work for him. So for example he will set a machine in motion, and let the laws of physics cripple his clients, but rarely does he resort to direct violence. I think it’s important; it makes Kang-do a very different sort of antihero than, say, Michael Shannon’s character in The Iceman (also opening this week) who can kill a man and not feel a thing. In spite of Kang-do’s swagger and sociopathy, there seems to be a hint of childish squeamishness and vulnerability beneath it all.
Out of the blue Kang-do’s mother Mi-Son (Min-soo Jo) arrives. She has come to pay the debt for abandoning him all those years ago. He treats her horribly, but she sees it as proper payment for her failure as a mother. He refuses to believe her, he puts her through hell — largely by showing her how badly he lives — but eventually he comes to love her.
Her motherly patience doesn’t make Kang-do a saint overnight, but they seem to humanize him a little bit. He finally has one positive relationship in his bloody and bleak life.
Evidence of Evil
There is a harrowing third act, but I’ll stop there and let the fans of Kim discover it for themselves. Suffice it to say that it takes the movies established themes — violence, debt, regret, sorrow — and twists and amplifies them, as any good third would do.
There are horrible things in Pieta, horrible things that happen between a sociopathic son and his mother. Out of context some might call it gratuitous or offensive. But if you have any empathy for the director or his characters, more importantly if you accept the pervasively sad tone of the film, you will see them as Oedipal tragedies, as God’s cruel jokes. They are evidence of evil in the universe, and not just in a sick man’s head.