Saturday, December 8, 2012


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.

4 Stars. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I have huge respect for Canadian twin sisters, The Soska Sisters (Jen and Sylvia), not just for their talent but in their persistence in making the type of films they want to make and actually finding an audience for them.  Female directors are few and far between, but female “horror” directors are like hen’s teeth.  The Soska Sisters’ burst onto the scene back in 2009 with their directorial debut, and ode to 1970’s grindhouse features, “Dead Hooker In A Trunk”.  That film was incredibly amateurish with shoddy photography and performances but what it did have was an incredible sense of fun and because of this, the experience of viewing the film was a hugely enjoyable one.  Sure, it is a seriously flawed film but it showed to the world that the sisters did indeed have a lot of talent, and showing us what they were capable on no budget, it got you excited thinking about what they could do if they actually had a budget.  “Dead Hooker In A Trunk” is almost like a home movie because both Jen and Sylvia Soska seemed to have a hand in every facet of making the film.  They wrote, directed and starred in the film, not to mention were set decorators, assistant editors and camera operators.  Three years later and the sisters have returned with their sophomore directorial effort, the body modification horror film “American Mary”.

The film stars Katharine Isabelle (of “Ginger Snaps” fame) as Mary Mason, a med student with eyes on becoming a great surgeon.  She is incredibly studious and knows that she has immense talent in the field however she is forever finding herself with serious money issues and is struggling to not only pay her tuition but even her phone bill.  In desperation, she applies for a job at a seedy nightclub hoping to make some quick cash without having to show too much skin.  Noticing all of the medical training on her resume, Billy (the owner of the club) asks Mary if she would like to make five grand in cash, the only catch is that she is not allowed to ask any questions.  Mary agrees and is taken downstairs to the basement where she is presented with a man who has been seriously beaten up.  Billy asks Mary to make sure that the man does not die and if she succeeds she will be paid.  After leaving the club, Mary is propositioned by one of the dancers (who has seen Mary’s work), Beatress, to perform some body modification surgery on a friend of hers.  Mary is confused as to exactly what body modification is but after being told she would be paid $10,000 in cash if she did the operation and even just $2,000 if she shows up and talks to her friend, Mary accepts.  She assumes that this is going to be a one off deal, but after a serious incident happens at a party Mary is attending, she turns her back on the world of professional surgery for good and enters into the world of body modification.

Despite all of the positive press “American Mary” has been receiving particularly in horror circles, I hate to say that I thought it was a bit of a mess.  Do not get me wrong, I thought that there was a lot of good stuff in it, but as a cohesive whole, the film just did not work for me at all.  I found that the film lacked momentum; it just seemed to plod along for the entirety of its running time.  It was really slow moving and seemed to lack focus.  The problem I think is that there are too many narrative threads within “American Mary” and The Soska Sisters had a problem balancing them all and to give each the desired screen time needed to make them worthwhile.  My favourite aspect of “American Mary” was the body modification part because it was so interesting and is not a subject that you see represented on screen a whole lot.  I recently read an interview with the sisters where they stated that they wanted to portray body modification as honestly as possible and not treat it like it was something abnormal.  They even pointed out the hypocrisy of society’s views towards body modification while being so excepting of “cosmetic surgery” because it fits into an image that is considered the norm in society.  This is all fascinating stuff and really got me thinking, and in this regard the sisters have succeeded enormously, but I just wished “American Mary” focused a whole lot more on this world than its other side plots.  Instead of wasting time on Billy’s obsession for Mary, we could have spent more time with Beatress and Ruby who are infinitely more interesting characters.  Another problem with the film that I had was the way the Soska Sisters handled the disintegration of Mary’s mind.  I understand that it was important to the story and needed to be in the film, but it just needed to be integrated much more seamlessly.  

Sadly something that seems to be inherited from “Dead Hooker In A Trunk” is the poor performances on display here.  Every horror fan I know (me included) seems to have had a crush on Katharine Isabelle since her breakout role in “Ginger Snaps” back in 2000 and it is so good to see her in another horror film but unfortunately I thought she gave a terribly flat performance.  She looked like she was sleep walking through the whole thing and she looked dead behind the eyes.  She still looks as great as ever but I was shocked at how little she seemed to emote (or convincingly emote, I should say) throughout this story considering how much she goes through.  I also thought her relationship with her grandmother was incredibly forced and never rang true once.  The rest of the actors I know nothing of, but I will say that none of them stood out at all which is never a good sign.

Where the Soska Sisters have improved dramatically is in the look of the film.  “American Mary” is a great looking film and cinematographer Brian Pearson does a great job of creating this dark and creepy world.  Gone is the amateur shaky cam and poorly composed look and in its place is a visual style that is seriously impressive.  The compositions within the frame are gorgeous and look to have been thought out well in advance; they really add to the atmosphere of the world (a world not dissimilar to the one Takashi Miike created in “Audition”).  One shot I loved was when Mary returns home from the party, her surgical books in the foreground as she enters the door in the background.  She slowly stumbles towards her books that she thought so highly of previous before pushing them all off the table, symbolizing that she is now done with that world.  

I must admit for a film dealing with a topic that is full of extremities, I was expecting “American Mary” to be a much bloodier and gorier film than it actually is.  One of the main promotional stills used for the film is of Katharine Isabelle wearing a black apron, her face covered in blood, so this was what I was expecting constantly throughout the film.  I was pleasantly surprised that the Soska Sisters didn’t exploit their subject for some unnecessary gore, in fact the surgery scenes are presented quite tamely without ever losing their impact.  Jen and Sylvia Soska themselves actually turn up as a couple of twins who want to never be apart even after death in one of the best scenes from “American Mary”.

 Overall, I wanted to love “American Mary” so much, I really did, but it sadly left me cold.  I do have a feeling that the film would play better with a packed audience where you are able to feed off of one another but unfortunately there was only me and one other guy in the screening I attended.  While I still believe in the Soska Sisters and think that they have a truly great horror film in them, this is not it.  It is filled with poor performances and it is a plodding affair.  It seems as the sisters have improved on the visual quality of their films, inversely their sense of fun has been affected.  I understand this is not the same type of film as “Dead Hooker In A Trunk” but I still think “American Mary” lacked an internal momentum needed to keep an audience interested.  Within a number of narrative threads, I really enjoyed the look at the world of body modification, which is an aspect of the film that the girls have really handled well.  I also really enjoyed the ending of the film even if it I don’t think it had been layered properly into the story beforehand.  While I still look forward to whatever the Soska Sisters make next, at the end of the day I found “American Mary” to be a real disappointment, however there are parts of it that are quite good, it’s just that as a complete film it did not work for me (although I seem to be in the minority here in regards to “American Mary”).

2.5 Stars.