From Wikipedia it states that “the Pieta is a subject in Christian art depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus, most often found in sculpture” and most often posed like in the poster for the film seen above. Put simply it is a mother sorrowfully holding the body of her lifeless son which goes a long way to describing what Kim Ki-Duk’s 18th film, “Pieta”, is about as it is a story that largely deals with the connection between mothers and their sons. After a self imposed three year break from filmmaking, Kim Ki-Duk returned in 2011 with a couple of experimental features, “Arirang” and “Amen”. Both of these are minor efforts compared to past work from this exciting director, but his latest film sees him finally return to narrative filmmaking and proves that he has lost none of his brilliance during his sabbatical.
Central to the world of “Pieta” is Gang-Do, a violent and sadistic loan shark who has quite the interesting scam. He lends money to desperate workers in the industrial town of Cheonggyecheon, where he charges ten times the interest of the initial loan, while at the same time forcing the worker to take out an insurance policy in case of any accident. If payment is unable to be met, Gang-Do returns to cripple the worker and claim the insurance money to pay off the debt owed to him. Gang-Do is a cruel person and has no problem crippling a man for life over a minor debt of a couple of grand. It is obvious that there is a lot of anger in Gang-Do which could be due to the fact that he feels that the world has given him nothing, as he grew up an orphan in life. Gang-Do continually goes about his daily business destroying people’s lives with unwavering ease until one day he notices a strange, older woman following him. No matter what he does to her, she will not leave Gang-Do alone. Eventually the woman confesses to being Gang-Do’s mother, Mi-Son, who has returned to her son’s side asking for his forgiveness for abandoning him when he was just a child. At first, Gang-Do wants nothing to do with the woman, and tries everything to get rid of her (including some quite violent means) but when he finally realizes that she is not going anywhere, he stops resisting and accepts his mother’s forgiveness and begins to let the woman into his life. Suddenly with love in his life he sees the world with new eyes and a different perspective as he begins to realize all of the pain he has caused around him, and tries to go about finding redemption for his past crimes and sins.
Right from the opening frame of “Pieta”, it is obvious that we are watching a Kim Ki-Duk film. Just the look and feel of the film gives the distinct feeling that this is a film that could be made by no other. For a director we were so used to receiving a new feature from every year, the four years between “Dream” and “Pieta” was an incredibly long wait, but the wait was definitely worth it because “Pieta” is easily one of Kim Ki-Duk’s very best films. It is like the time off he took has re-energized the man and he is now ready once again to attack the world of cinema with his unflinching eye towards society. None too subtle is the fact that Ki-Duk is attacking capitalism, or extreme capitalism, in his latest film as we are forever witness to the debilitating effects that money has over people’s lives. He makes no bones about exposing just what people are willing to do or sacrifice in an attempt to own the smallest sum of money if just for a fleeting moment. This theme is so enforced in “Pieta” that you could say that money, or the evils of money, are almost like a third main character in the film. Ki-Duk is obviously disgusted at the lengths people will go for money as well as how far they are willing to exploit others and from his eyes he believes that most of the world’s problems come from this. There is a scene in the film when Gang-Do asks his mother “What is money?” and her reply is “The beginning and end of all things”, which she follows up with “love, honor, violence, fury, hatred, jealousy, revenge and death”. This basically sums up Ki-Duk’s feelings on the whole subject.
The other two characters are obviously Gang-Do, played by Lee Jung-Jin, and Mi-Son portrayed by Jo Min-Soo. Both are relative newcomers (I have seen neither in anything before) and both are excellent particularly Min-Soo who has an incredibly complex role which is exposed more as the film goes along. I must admit I thought it was slightly amusing that they had to add a thin line of dark eye-liner to Jung-Jin to give him an even darker appearance but he is brilliant at pulling off the fact that this man is incredibly cold, almost as if he has no heart at all. He never flinches causing such pain on strangers; in fact you feel he revels in it even though he does not outwardly emote this. Once his mother enters the picture Jung-Jin is able to soften up his portrayal of Gang-Do slightly as we see his lost childhood start to reverberate through him. There is a scene midway through the film when Gang-Do and his mother go out together and he really is like a little boy, not the violent thug we have witnessed previous. By the end of the film we even witness this once deplorable man show affection towards another human being.
Jo Min-Soo in my opinion has the much tougher role in “Pieta” because it is so internal. She has limited dialogue but emotes so much through her eyes which are very almost always full of tears. It is obvious that she feels an immense sadness and incredible guilt over what she is doing and what has happened past, but she needs to see this through and find redemption for herself and her son no matter how painful it is. Min-Soo is at her finest during her final scene as she is full of complex and contradictory emotions but pulls it off so extraordinarily well. I must say that I really like the way Kim Ki-Duk shot the scenes featuring Mi-Son because he uses a lot of close-ups with this character which is appropriate due to how much of the scene is usually played out over her face and her emotions. He always chooses beautiful angles however making the painful image of a crying mother look so beautiful. I cannot forget to mention just how great the chemistry was between the two leads either.
From a visual standpoint, I thought that the film was outstanding, particularly with the production design. I loved the use of the colour red used throughout Gang-Do’s apartment which contrasted beautifully with the darkness of his world. As I mentioned earlier, Kim Ki-Duk’s frame compositions were just beautiful without ever drawing attention to themselves, and Jo Young-Jik’s cinematography complemented the dark and shadowy world. I particularly loved the representation of Cheonggyecheon’s slums, it was a world that felt lived in, it felt raw and dirty and also, it was a place that I am not used to seeing in South Korean cinema. My only issue in regards to the look of the film was every now and then Kim Ki-Duk would employ the use of a fast zoom technique that would turn, for instance, a two-shot into a single close-up. For me, I found this technique to be very amateurish and tacky and would have preferred the use of editing to achieve a better result as the zoom effect often distracted me and took me out of the film.
Being a huge fan of Kim Ki-Duk, I am well aware of how brutal his films can be, particularly with regards to the violence often presented. It comes as a shock to find how restrained Ki-Duk is with “Pieta” and its depiction of violence. The majority of it is implied and takes place off camera, however this never takes away from the fact at how brutal it all is. In fact for the majority of the first half of the film, there is little joy to be had, with the tone of the film being incredibly dark that it almost drowns in its own pessimism. There is little hope in “Pieta”, at least initially, and yet amazingly through all the darkness Kim Ki-Duk has managed to find a couple of moments of almost slapstick comedy in the film. These moments come from nowhere but actually have a real-life quality to them that you cannot help but laugh. Once the mother enters the film and Gang-Do’s life, the slightest sliver of hope enters the film and it is not as heavy going as the first half of the film, as it begins to change into a psychological examination of a man re-evaluating his life and actions within it.
Overall, I found Kim Ki-Duk’s “Pieta” to be a great film; it is so good to have him back making movies again. It is definitely a dark and troubling film, but it is full of depth that makes it a worthwhile watch. “Pieta” recently won the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, which is the festival’s top prize, so it appears that Kim Ki-Duk is back in a big way. As seems the norm with most films I review, this film may not be for everyone because it has some quite disturbing and controversial scenes within, but if you are a fan of brave cinema you should find “Pieta” extremely worthwhile. While I found the finale to be a little too protracted and his point about the “evils of money” being none too subtle, “Pieta” is still a fantastic film and I recommend it wholeheartedly.