Representing a true return to form for the Korean maverick filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, Pieta is a relentless, brutal and brilliant exploration of the human psyche set within the cramped industrial grounds of Cheonggyecheon, a regeneration project in downtown Seoul.
Gang-do works as a collector for a loan shark in the aforementioned industrial area, which is slowly turning into a slum. In the opening hour of the film he visits the various borrowers in their machine shops. If they can pay the instalments, there are no problems; but if someone can’t afford to pay, then Gang-do disables them in order to collect on the insurance policy that they were made to sign at the start of the loan. It’s a cruel method and Gang-do blankly goes about his business: crushing hands, chopping off limbs and even throwing people off buildings.
However, one day a woman turns up on Gang-Do’s doorstep, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him. At first he’s unmoved – he treats the woman as obscenely as possible in an ever-elevating number of tests – but she never waivers. Slowly but surely the two start some sort of kinship. However, this happiness is not to last long.
Out of this bleak ugliness, Kim Ki-duk fashions a tale that more than justifies the use of the title (translating as ‘piety’ or ‘pity’). His story is dotted with characters who come to terms with abandonment, not only through each other, but also through the ever-changing society they exist in.
Cheonggyecheon is an industrial nightmare: a once thriving hub of small metalworks and other industrial shops now slowly being swallowed whole by urban renewal. Its inhabitants are equally lost: most have given up on their dreams simply to survive while others have never even had the chance to dream. Within this landscape Kang-do is at first the very exaggeration of evil: an unstoppable force who acts as some sort of angel of deliverance, whether he is collecting money or gutting fish for his dinner. However, it is with the appearance of his mother that the very first touches of humanity infiltrate him and his world. And it is this humanity which will create the tragedy that Kim Ki-duk so brilliantly brings about.
In the role of Gang-do, Lee Jeong-jin is a marvel to watch, his slow transformation almost impossible to tear away from. He is well matched in the intensity of his role by the actress Jo Min-soo, who brings a sense of disturbing mystery to the role of the mother who simply will not leave her son. It’s the very forceful nature of the relationship which makes Pieta one of the most astounding films of the year, ending with a final image that will stay with viewers for a long time to come.
A haunting, bleak but poetic tale told using stark cinematography and harsh lighting,the film may turn off some viewers with its violent and relentless nature. However, anyone who can get past its surface aggression will discover one of the more delicately crafted character studies of modern cinema, and a testament to the talent of director Kim Ki-duk, who continues to shock and astound in equal measure.
Watch the trailer: