Pieta (2012): Devastating oedipal gangster masterpiece

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Good old Kim Ki-duk. For over two decades now, he has been one of the most daring and original contributors to the rich tapestry that is South Korean cinema, noted for his unconventional (and often heavily controversial) highbrow fare. From the brutal anti-romances Crocodile and Bad Guy, deranged family drama Moebius and the transformative existentialism of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…And Spring, Kim has carved himself something of a Marmite reputation, audiences either loving the unique and confrontational manner in which he addresses the human condition, or being categorically revolted by it. I place myself firmly into the former camp, believing Kim to have a commendably deft touch in infusing all of his works with undeniable beauty. Themes that sound utterly depressing on paper (and would make utterly depressing films in the hands of a more average director) take on a strangely poetic, almost cathartic cinematic form in his hands. My personal favourite of his works, Pieta, is emblematic of his ability to turn grim subject matter into bizarrely poignant riffs on life, love, identity and redemption.

Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is an isolated twentysomething working as an enforcer for a loansharking operation on the outskirts of Seoul. A disturbingly emotionless, borderline sadistic young man, Lee displays no empathy whatsoever for the debtors he is tasked with recovering money from, and has a horrifically novel method for ensuring that his employers always secure their profit. When a borrower has no feasible way of paying back their sum, Lee forces them to sign an application for disability insurance, at which point he brutally and irrevocably injures them so they may file a claim. There’s no use in attempting to plead with him or appeal to any possible sensitivity for your dire straits, because he simply doesn’t care. His bosses appearing to be just as pathologically bereft of human emotion as he is, Lee functions solely as a retrieval machine, returning each night to a barren apartment and having no contact other than his work office and the abodes of his victims. From the outset, it seems impossible to fathom how an audience could hope to connect to a character as viciously callous as our man here.

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As he sets out one morning to torment and handicap a few more unfortunate marks, Lee is confronted by a strange woman, silently sizing him up and following his every step. With his usual grace, he inquires as to what the fuck she’s looking at, and tells her to get lost. Undeterred, the stranger persists in shadowing our unwholesome protagonist, until he finally loses patience and gets physical. That’s when she drops the bomb: she’s actually Lee’s mother. Having abandoned him as an infant, she blames her selfish impulsivity and unreadiness for motherhood for the way he has turned out, his lack of parental love and normal socialisation fomenting the monster he has become. She has finally worked up the courage to seek him out, beg his forgiveness and ask to be a part of his life, believing that she can transform him with her influence. He irately rebuffs her at first, subsequently subjecting her to some particularly unpleasant episodes of bullying, demanding that she proves herself to be the woman who brought him into the world. Contrary to his misanthropic suspicions, the lady acquiesces as convincingly as anybody could, and what begins as prodding curiosity on Lee’s part eventually develops into a whirlwind of emotion that he has never experienced. This stranger quickly turns from being another indistinguishable nobody into someone he feels strongly attached to and protective of.

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Alas, while this new chapter in Lee’s life appears to be having an arguably positive effect on him psychologically, it still hasn’t made him reconsider his career choices, and his lifestyle comes back to bite him on the backside at the worst possible time. A former debtor, now phenomenally disgruntled and unhinged after being brutalised by Lee, decides he is going to avenge himself upon the shark in the most painful way possible, at which point his mother goes missing. Utterly distraught at the notion of the only good thing in his life being taken away, Lee switches fully into roughneck gear as he tracks down his previous debtors, desperate to rescue his parent and exact brutal revenge. He is woefully unprepared for the gut-wrenching discoveries this journey will take him to.

As with several other Kim Ki-duk works, Pieta came under some considerably strong scrutiny upon its release, many critics and audience members alike feeling uncomfortable at the director’s blunt and iconoclastic approach to everyday themes. While the central conceit is reconnection between long-lost mother and child, Lee’s relationship with the woman bears more resemblance to an intense, sadomasochistic & codependent romance than anything else. There is no explicit depiction of incest, but their mutual emotional maladaptation (and possibly the fact that she is a complete stranger and doesn’t look egregiously older) manifests in a way that strongly deviates from any traditional portrayals of family relationships. And as odd as it might sound, there is something incredibly touching and devastating about it. The film has been excoriated for its lurid violence and sexuality, but it’s nothing that is going to nauseate you if you’re familiar with Oldboy, let alone the more under-the-radar and extreme Korean offerings, which are bountiful. The title refers to a famous concept in Christian art that depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the corpse of Christ, and happens to be the root Latin word for ‘piety’ as well as the Italian translation of ‘pity’. It could be interpreted as referencing the compassion that the mystery woman feels for her problematic spawn and the ‘sacred’ nature of that particular artistic subject in contrast to the ‘profane’ nature of the film’s content. Ultimately, both are highly emotive works concerning a mother and son, and it’s a brassy and thought-provoking slice of ingenuity on Mr Kim’s part.

Lee Jung-jin’s lead performance as a heartless thug who, quite literally, goes through the mother of all arcs, deserves unreserved adulation. His ability to take an utterly detestable and inhuman criminal, seemingly beyond salvation, and transform him into a confused little boy who doesn’t know how to handle the new affection in his life is breathtaking. He is very physically imposing, but the many scenes of mental-emotional nuance convey him as being just as pitiable and heartbreaking as an abandoned toddler. It’s a shining example of Kim’s brilliant penchant for audience dilemma, as no normal individual could discard the ugliness of Lee’s behaviour, but you are simultaneously fearful for the protection of his new relationship, desperate for the tale to wrap up in a manner that’s comprehensively beneficial to all characters. Both Lee Jung-jin and Jo Min-su’s (that’s mummy) performances are an acting masterclass.

As far as you could possibly get from an easy watch, Pieta is a film that takes the accolade of turning me completely upside down for a considerable while after I first viewed it, which happens to be a personal metric for cinematic respectability. It’s also one that I, unfortunately, experience all too rarely, and feel compelled to propagate whenever it arises. Far from being in agreement with the film’s unfairly assigned bogeyman reputation of being a disgusting and excessive shocker, I found it to be deeply moving, intelligent and necessarily challenging. Korean cinema has a knack for pushing the envelope in a visually and psychologically orgasmic manner, and Kim Ki-duk is one of the Dutch Masters in that regard. I recommend it passionately.

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