Pieta: Venice Review

Viewers will keep their eyes closed for most of this violent but ultimately moving Korean film.

South Korean master Kim Ki-duk returns to form in an offbeat tale starring Cho Min-soo -- who is bound to be a best actress contender -- and Lee Jung-jin.

Pulling out of his creative tailspin that stretched from Arirang through last year’s self-produced Amen, Korean festival favorite Kim Ki-duk is back in fighting form in Pieta, an intense and, for the first hour, sickeningly violent film that unexpectedly segues into a moving psychological study. Though the appreciable ending will be what festival juries remember when the prizes are being handed out – and female lead Cho Min-soo is bound to be a contender at Venice – it’s not an exaggeration to say there’s not a single pleasant moment in the film’s first half, and most Western audiences are going to find this very tough going. The Venice press screening elicited extremely mixed reactions.

Still, the boldness of the way the writer-director-editor twists Asian horror conventions to his own purposes gives a sort of retrospective justification to the vision of extreme human ugliness and degradation that opens the film. Blank-faced young Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is the collector for a loan shark; his method is to make his victims sign an insurance policy that guarantees them money should they become disabled at work. When they don’t make their payments, Kang-do chops off their hands or crushes them in machines, or throws them off empty buildings to cripple them and collect the insurance money. Though the worst takes place offscreen, the mutilation scenes have a realism that makes them almost impossible to watch.

The setting is the terrifying industrial slum of Cheonggyecheon, jam-packed with small, cramped machine shops where utter poverty reigns. Though at least one character mourns its imminent transformation through urban renewal, it’s filmed as a place out of hell, where people are so destitute they are willing to barter their arms and legs for money. The theme of money as the devil’s trade recurs throughout the film.

The initial impression, however, is that Kang-do is an inhumanly violent piece of work. First seen in bed pleasuring himself in animal fashion, his cruelty toward the terrified workmen he visits knows no bounds. Rather boldly, Kim simultaneously spoofs his evil qualities by exaggerating them, like the his habit of throwing a huge knife at the drawing of a naked woman or leaving bloody animal entrails smeared over the bathroom floor.

One day, out of the blue, a woman professing to be his mother turns up on his doorstep. At first he pushes her off, but she insists it was she who abandoned him as a baby. To test her, he cuts off one of his own toes and demands she eat it. She does. Still disbelieving, he rapes her. No matter what obscene thing he thinks of, she continues staring at him out of adoring eyes.

Feeling real and unreal at the same time, the story rolls on at a machine-like rhythm. Kang-do, who has never known tenderness in his life, falls under his mother’s spell and she becomes the most important thing in the world for him. Cracks appear in his cruelty and he even shows a playful, childish side. When the big twist finally comes, this bleak downer of a film suddenly turns to poetry. Not the joyful lyricism of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring, but a painful, melancholic ode to the human condition, clinched by a mournful final song.

The fine Cho, intensely mysterious as the mother, and Lee, totally ambiguous as the loan collector, make a duet of the absurd which Kim pushes to the limit in the film’s title, likening their relationship to the Christian Pietà and the Virgin Mary’s sorrow cradling the body of her dead son Jesus. This cross-cultural reference hovers uneasily over of a grating, unsettling story.   

Dividing the camerawork with cinematographer Jo Yeong-jik, Kim gives scenes a dark, hand-held look in which the frame edge disappears into black shadows. It’s not a particularly attractive style but does reflect the ugliness of its subject.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (In Competition)
Production companies: Good Films, Finecut
Cast: Cho Min-soo, Lee Jung-jin
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Screenwriter:  Kim Ki-duk
Producer: Kim Soon-mo
Executive producers: Kim Ki-duk, Kim Woo-taek
Director of photography:  Jo Yeong-jik
Production designer: Lee Hyun-joo
Editor: Kim Ki-duk
Music: Park In-young
Sales Agent: Finecut
No rating, 104 minutes