South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk is a festival favorite whose provocative and frequently abrasive films (3-Iron, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring, Bad Guy) have generally relegated him to international arthouse ghettos, where his work still manages to offend fainthearted sensibilities. Kim’s 18th film, Pieta, is probably his most commercial release so far, yet it, too, is full of queasy-making moments and intentional affronts. Pieta nevertheless reveals a dark humor as well as thematic through-lines about redemption and capitalism’s proclivity toward devouring its most vulnerable.
Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a ruthless enforcer for a loan shark. His method is to maim and cripple the limbs of those he does business with in order to collect insurance money when they inevitably can’t pay up. His beat is the Cheonggyecheon section of Seoul, an area full of small, subsistence metal shops and other trade shops, where the owners have dreams that are bigger than their sense of reality and take out loans that they will never have the means to pay back. The animalistic Kang-do – whom we observe doing nothing but masturbating, working, and killing his daily dinner meat and leaving the animal’s bloody entrails in his bathroom – usually mangles his victims with the mechanical tools of their trade, adding insult to injury. Into his life arrives Mi-sun (Cho Min-soo), who claims to be the mother who abandoned him at birth. Distrustful, he rebuffs her at first, then subjects her to a number of aggressive humiliations and cruel challenges (the weak-kneed may prefer to avert their eyes at this point). Yet over time, he softens to her presence and shows glimmers of the child he never was. As he grows more protective of the woman and sheds some of his brutality, we come to learn her motivations and the tables turn.
For all the violent events in Pieta, most of it is implied or occurs offscreen. The performances of these two leads are compelling and the Cheonggyecheon area can almost be seen as another character in Kim’s morality tale. And even if forgiveness is not always possible in the human condition, Pieta allows that expiation of one’s sins is within the realm of the possible.