Director: Kim Ki-Duk
Runtime: 118 minutes
Incest, torture, and cannabilism are all found in Pieta, Kim Ki-Duk's dark drama that captured the Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival. And somehow, despite the subject matter, the film feels tame when compared to the recent slew of dark and violent South Korean thrillers, from Oldboy to I Saw the Devil. Oddly, the lack of truly stomach-churning violence also comes hand-in-hand with a lessened sense of dramatic purpose. Ki-Duk's latest is strongly acted and has compelling stretches, but compared to many of the best works of 21st century South Korean cinema, it can't help but come off as underwhelming.
As suggested by the title, Pieta is a film about a mother and son. Yet unlike the famous depiction of Mary cradling Christ's mangled body, Pieta's relationship isn't quite as simple and pure. Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a brutal collector for a loan shark, who delights in dishing out awful forms of punishment to clients who fall behind on payments. This usually involves breaking or severing limbs. With his dark, tough-looking jacket and feathery hair, not to mention his taut, sneering face, Kang-do is the embodiment of what I can only describe as a faded punk-rock torturer. The opening stretches are almost episodic, as Kang-do travels from client to client, terrorizing people along the way.
Things change, however, when a woman named Mi-Son (Cho Min-soo) starts following Kang-do, and claims to be the mother who abandoned him as a newborn. Though Kang-do is hardly affectionate to Mi-Son, he slowly develops a strained bond with the woman, who seems content to do whatever she can to satisfy him. Pieta never fully lets up on the dark violence, but it does slow down and allow the central relationship time to breathe. Both performances are aces, capturing the strange, often twisted connection between mother and son.
Yet if parts of the film work (the performances, the ending), some aspects in the broader picture aren't as successful. Some of Ki-Duk's writing and direction feels forced, including any number of scenes involving women shrieking and crying to the point where the actresses sound like they're out of tears. And even though the film's most unpleasant scenes are less extreme than those found in similar films, the restraint almost hinders the impact. And unlike so many Korean films blessed with an offbeat, dark sense of humor, some of the laughs here feel a rather unintentional. Ki-Duk's attempts to develop Mi-Son and Kang-do's relationship feel rather shallow, which isn't helped by the twist that changes the perception of the relationship completely.
Thankfully Pieta regains steam as it segues into the final act, which contains a twisted and poetic conclusion. The result is more plot-oriented than character-driven, yet it works as a small-scale tour-de-force. On the technical front, the film is surprisingly mediocre, with a mix of decent visuals melded with some shoddy, pixelated imagery, distracting zooms, and bad editing. Pieta has been hailed as a return to form for Kim Ki-Duk, but outside of the excellent work from the actors, it feels more like a merely good work that represents a director struggling to get firmly back on his feet.