If ever there were a person trapped in a Buddhist-hell of continuous earthly suffering it is Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), the central character of PIETÁ. As the hired muscle for a seedy loan shark he patrols the grimy, downtrodden machine shops of Seoul, tracking down those who have reneged on their debts and collecting his own twisted form of compensation, crippling his victims so that his boss can collect the insurance money stemming from their “accidents.” What’s worse, Kang-do almost seems to enjoy what he does and as, the film progresses, the urban landscape around him becomes as cluttered with his hobbling victims as the space around Jacob Marley is by ghosts. Day-in, day-out, Kang-do shambles through this chilling vacuum-of-an-existence, seemingly knowing no other way to live.
Into this void one day is injected an older woman named Jang Mi-sun (Jo Min-su), who mysteriously follows Kang-do around on his daily routines before approaching him and telling him that she is the mother who had abandoned him years before. Kang-do scoffs at this and proceeds to subject her to every manner of humiliation possible, trying to get her out of his way, until finally convincing himself that she must, after all, be his mother. Kang-do begins to soften and change but, unfortunately, karma is closing in on him fast and a startling revelation about Mi-sun’s character will ultimately seal his fate.
The unrelentingly stark atmosphere of Pietà is daunting and bleak, with Kang-do resembling what might have been the result if one of the abandoned children-from-hell of either Luis Buñuel’s LOS OLVIDADOS or Hector Babenco’s PIXOTE had been allowed to reach full maturity in an ancient Greek tragedy. Indeed, Kim strips bare and refuses to sentimentalize the machinations of capitalism, showing how the wealthy prey upon the lowest classes, portraying a world where every human body has a price, no matter how cheap. The first half of the film, with the naked light of Kim’s camera firmly fixed on the scorched-earth of Lee’s empty existence, can be extremely hard to watch at times. But—having said that—the film pays handsome dividends to those adventurous enough to see it through to its end. The conclusion is particularly rich, with both main characters – karmic-ally speaking, left with no place to go – moving inexorably toward painful redemption, at last allowing some light to filter into this purgatory.
Special mention should made of the performances by the two leads: Jo Min-su is heartbreaking in an incredibly difficult role while Lee Jung-jin—his face a mask of pain and suffering early on—manages to bring life even to this monstrous character.
Critic André Bazin once famously summarized the filmmaking philosophy of Erich von Stroheim thus: “Take a close look at the world, keep on doing so, and in the end it will lay bare for you all its cruelty and its ugliness.” Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà proves that such a withering stare will ultimately reveal beauty, as well.
Though Pietà was winner of the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film festival (surprisingly, the first Korean film to do so) Kim Ki-duk has long been established as one of the poets laureate of the new Korean cinema, his films with their stark and erotic imagery, sparse dialogue and quiet, hermetically-sealed environments, and focus on allegorical situations and Buddhist transformation making him a fixture on the stage of world cinema. Many of his uniquely searing, uncompromising parables, from THE ISLE (2000) and SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER… AND SPRING (2003) to 3-IRON (2004) and THE BOW (2005), are available in our Korean section.
Interestingly, two other films made by prominent Korean directors in recent years have similarly dealt with the theme of motherhood (or grandmother-hood, as it happens) in an unflinching and thought-provoking way: Bong Joon-ho’s aptly titled MOTHER (2009) and Lee Chang-dong’s POETRY (2010).