Following his detours into semi-autobiographical documentary (the Un Certain Regard-winning Arirang) and one-man movie production (the minimalist Amen, in which he’s responsible for every aspect, from writing, directing and cinematography to editing and producing) in 2011, Kim Ki-duk returns to more familiar form – complete with the Korean auteur’s usual penchant for human perversity and religious allegory – with Pieta, which was awarded the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
Its win over The Master might have been partly due to a technicality in the competition rules which prohibited the Paul Thomas Anderson film from winning more than two major awards, although nobody can deny that Pieta is a beast in its own right.
Drawing on the titular subject in Christian art (which constitutes portraits of Mary holding the body of Christ) – though not quite in the way you expected it – this brutal morality tale centres around the 30-year-old Gang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a sadistic debt collector who routinely cripples his unpaid clients in an industrial slum for their insurance claims, and Mi-seon (Cho Min-soo), an enigmatic middle-aged woman who appears one day, claiming to be the long-lost mother who abandoned him at birth. Suffice to say that nothing about the duo’s growing relationship is as it seems – even if their bonding process does involve various sorts of physical, and even sexual, assaults.
As Gang-do grows close to the woman and develops compassion for a fellow human being for, you sense, the first time in a long while, he becomes alert to risks of potential revenge by his former victims.
While its early sections may feel like a gallery of unhinged characters inhabiting an abstract world of poverty and suffering, Pieta, with its revelatory third act, eventually morphs into a decidedly more complex tale of vengeance and redemption in which the majority of its characters – including those with the briefest of scenes, such as the debtors and their immediate families – come to flirt with the moral dilemmas that confront everyone. The irony enveloping these aggrieved characters is so deadly it’s at times almost comical.