Perhaps we can all agree that mega-prolific South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk does not set himself out to please everyone’s tastes. His latest cinematic offering, the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion-winning Pieta, works like a grim hybrid between the provocation of Lars von Trier and the bleak-as-fuck output of Gaspar Noé, featuring a blistering mix of undiluted violence, masochism, rape, suicide, capital punishment, death and even cannibalism. All of it captured with a handheld docu-drama aesthetic, making this morality tale set in Cheonggyecheon, the industrial butthole of South Korea, look like the ultimate hell-on-earth damnation. Michael Mann’s jury in Venice last year awarded this over the philosophical enigma of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, and it’s easy to see why – Pieta is a controversy-courting, censorship-baiting piece of world cinema that does not only tell a deliriously dark revenge narrative but also has something to say about the zeitgeisty economic concerns our time. Here, Ki-Duk captures a blue-collar factory town, when failed by the system turns to predatory loan-sharks for debts with hyper-inflated interest that would make Mastercard look like Mother Theresa – and the hardscrabble people that cannot pay back are subjected to a loss of limb that would subject their insurance for debt compensation. It’s this grisly, bare-bones medieval banking system that gives Pieta its disquieting resonance.
And what’s a system without its bullish thugs roaming the town like a grim reapers collecting debts. Central to Pieta is an antagonist, a mirthless loner with a penchant for sadistic violence and animal mutilation, whose existence is suddenly confronted by a woman who turns up on his doorstep claiming to be his estranged mother, the point in which fuck-all happens. Since mother-and-son Oedipal issue seem to be a ongoing trend (see Only God Forgives and Adore), Pieta pushes boundaries further by portraying a son raping his purported mother for the sake of her penance. And at one point, the mother unceremoniously reciprocates with a handjob. It’s an inarguably perverted move, and if it weren’t for Ki-Duk’s keenness to explore abandonment and maternal self-blame issues, this film shall be put down as mere provocation. Still it remains hugely fascinating, if unoriginal though, since Ki-Duk must have missed Bong Joon-Ho’s magnificent Mother, which also features a fierce, morally ambiguous matriarch. That film is infitely superior to Pieta, but that doesn’t mean Ki-duk’s film isn’t without its powers. The moral dynamics between the aggrieved mother and the psychotic son gives the film its ballast and equivocal mystery. Which is a shame as the film changes trajectory in media res, dropping the twisted psychodrama and railing for a revenge narrative, which feels lifted straight from the cinema of Ki-Duk’s fellow countryman Chan-wook Park, albeit with less accomplished style and nuance. The reveal gives us something to chew over nonetheless – Pieta repurposes the famous Michelangelo sculpture of the Virgin Mary cradling the post-crucifixion cadaver of Jesus Christ into a portrait of a matriarch hell-bent on avenging his youngling. Christian allegory be damned, this is a mother who discovers resolve in grief, eschewing piety over vengeance of those who wronged her.[separator type=”space”] DIRECTOR: Kim Ki-Duk | CAST: Min-Soo Jo, Jeong Jin-Lee | SCREENPLAY: Kim Ki-Duk | PRODUCER: Good Film, Finecut | RUNNING-TIME: 104 mins | GENRE: Drama | COUNTRY: South Korea