Review: ‘Pieta’ Begs to be Different

Kim Ki-duk's 'Pieta' (Drafthouse Films)
Kim Ki-duk’s ‘Pieta’ (Drafthouse Films)

The opening credits proudly announce that Pieta is the 18th film by Kim Ki-duk, immediately suggesting that it should be viewed within the context of his career.

Therefore, I feel obliged to disclose that I’ve only seen four of Kim’s films previous to this one, and none since 2006’s Time. (As long as we’re getting things on the record, the others are 2001’s Bad Guy, 2002’s The Coast Guard, and 2003’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring.) From that small sampling of the Korean filmmaker’s career, I carried away the impression that his work was distinctive, memorable, and extremely brutal, presenting an unflinchingly bleak view of humanity, especially relationships between men and women.

Pieta would appear to fit that description as well. Street thug Gang-Do (Lee Jeong-jin) collects overdue loans in a particularly brutal fashion, physically disabling those who are past due on their payments and then forcing them to submit insurance claims that will cover their debts. When the wife of one hapless debtor wails bitterly, Gang-Do turns righteous and shouts: ‘People who borrow money and don’t repay it are the real criminals,’ or words to that effect.

Gang-Do himself lives in a tiny, squalid flat, and is presented as a solitary soul consumed by anger. Then a middle-aged woman appears at his doorstep and, oddly enough, rushes inside … to begin cleaning up his apartment. Her actions are explained when she introduces herself as Mi-Son (Jo Min-soo), Gang-Do’s long-lost mother. She apologizes for abandoning him as a child, and sings a lullaby to prove her parentage.

Wanting nothing to do with her, Gang-Do throws her out, but she begins stalking him. To get rid of her, he cuts off a piece of his flesh with a huge pocket knife and tells her to eat it to prove her motherhood. She does. And then he rapes her …

Somewhere within that sequence, I disengaged completely from the movie.

As dramatic “reality,” even of the fictional kind, even having in mind Kim’s established record of cruelly extreme behavior, I didn’t believe it for a second. Maybe it’s just me and my own blinkered perception of mankind, but I cannot accept that someone would cut off a piece of his flesh with a huge pocket knife and make his “mother” eat it And then rape her. Sorry, no, my mind shut down, as far as dealing with Pieta as drama. Taken at face value, it’s exploitative garbage.

As a risible and weirdly perverse parable, however, I found it to be wryly amusing. Without the obligation to take any of it seriously, the overblown melodrama having long since collapsed upon itself, the black comic elements of the film stand out in greater relief. Viewed as a parable, the relationship between mother and son can be interpreted as a bitter commentary on the political / military / industrial complex and its view of consumers. Or, it could be considered as a brutal depiction of the class war, with the rich creating the poor, abandoning them, trying to make up for its neglect with material goods, and then suffering angry backlash.

Any reading such as those two is infinitely preferable to the idea that Pieta represents what would happen if a mother attempted to reconnect with the son she left behind. And it makes it much easier to swallow the manner in which the story is resolved.

Frankly, I doubt that Kim intended his 18th film to be a black comedy, and question whether he meant to impart commentary in the form of a parable, but for me it plays much better to think that he did.

Pieta is now playing in a limited engagemet, exclusively at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.

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