The rough road to redemption

The Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk has packed so much lurid material and high melodrama into his latest film, Pieta, that the weakness of its dramatic punch can't be chalked up to a lack of trying. The ease with which it can be shrugged off is especially intriguing because the performances and production values are so impressive.

PIETA (Korea, 2012, colour, 104 min.) directed by Kim Ki-duk and starring Lee Jeong-jim and Jo Min-soo. In Korean with optional English and Korean subtitles. Extras, including interviews and documentaries including one about the film’s big win at the Venice Film Festival, are not subtitled. A Region. A Korean Blu-ray release, also available as a Region 3 DVD

Pieta follows the mounting misfortunes of Gang-do, a loner of about 30 who makes his living as a debt collector given to extreme methods. Money is lent at an outrageously high rate of interest, and when the debtors are unable to repay Gang-do cripples them and demands that they reimburse him from insurance money.

Since the setting is a Seoul neighbourhood dense with small machine shops fitted out with blades and presses of every description, his crippling techniques can be very cinematic.

He goes about his business without a trace of remorse, taking vicious beatings from his boss when he doesn't complete a collection, in a way that is standard stuff in the pain-filled world of Korean crime cinema. His victims sometimes vow revenge, and no fan of the genre will doubt that baroque vengeance stratagems will surface later to fuel the latter part of the film.

Things change with a development, straight out of the silent cinema, that suddenly disrupts Gang-do's routine: a mystery woman appears out of nowhere and claims to be the mother who had abandoned him as a newborn baby. She moves in, ignores his furious rejections and follows him around silently, cooking meals, straightening up his apartment, and smiling enigmatically when he threatens violence. Kim Ki-duk can't resist taking things over the limit by even having him rape her, snarling that he will withdraw only if she admits that she is a fake. She holds fast to her claim, however, and the inevitable shift begins to occur in Gang-do's character: he starts to perceive the error of his ways.

There has often been a Christian religious undertow in Kim's work, especially close to the surface in films like The Samaritan Girl and Three Iron, with its mysterious, mute, angelic house intruder. Here, with a religious reference announced right in the movie's title, he has set the stage for the repeated outbursts about the uselessness of money that the reformed Gang-do will give voice to as he falls under the spell of his growing love for his rediscovered mum.

The story of the vicious man who makes a traumatic discovery that gives him new insights into his own, crippled character is nothing new. Gang-do's literary predecessors go back at least as far as Oedipus, but a film more probing than this one might have resulted if Kim Ki-duk had followed through on the impact of the almost mechanically cruel Gang-do's suddenly acquiring a seemingly self-sacrificing and compassionate mother.

Instead he unleashes broad ironies and plot switcheroos that steer the film straight into the overcrowded territory of the Korean revenge flick, where it pales besides such genre favourites as The Man From Nowhere, The Chaser, Oldboy and I Saw The Devil. Grisly as they are, all of those films flash surprising moments of humour, admittedly often very nasty humour, that leavens them and gives them spark. But Pieta takes itself very seriously, and when it springs its final ironic stinger, it comes as a letdown.

Too bad, really, because there are strongly acted and directed set pieces scattered through the film.

One, in which the newly sensitised Gang-do spares a young father who wants to be doubly crippled to enable him to both pay back his loan and have money to support a baby about to be born, is much more moving and affecting than it sounds in summary. Another, involving one of Gang-do's victims who, deprived the use of his legs, has become a whining, complaining cripple supported by his increasingly fed-up wife, could have been developed into interesting film of its own. Pieta won the top prize at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, and many viewers may find more in it than I did. An obvious nod to Hitchcock's Vertigo, which also centres on a mystery woman assigned an identity by a man obsessed with his past, is made explicit by Pieta's climactic scene. That reference shows how high Kim Ki-duk was aiming with his film.

I purchased my copy online from yesasia.com.

About the author

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Writer: Plalai Faifa
Position: Writer