"Money is the beginning and end of all things. Love, honour, violence, fury... hatred, jealousy... revenge... death..."
Kang-do (Lee Jeong-jin) works as a debt collector for a loans company; taking it upon himself to force those who cannot meet their repayments into signing insurance claims, then crippling them and claiming back the money they owe. In the course of his dubious and violent duties, he finds himself being constantly followed by a middle-aged woman (Jo Min-soo) who before long turns up at his home claiming to be his mother; the woman who abandoned him as a child.
Initially refusing to believe her claims, Kang-do does his utmost to get this woman out of his life - even raping her to underline the fact that, to him, she means less than nothing - but to no avail; the woman simply refuses to leave.
However, as Kang-do spends increasing amounts of time in her company, largely against his will, he is faced with a growing number of indications that she may in fact be his mother after all, but no sooner does he begin to bond with the woman, and dare to hope that he can finally reclaim the love he has always been denied, than she suddenly disappears and on receiving a phone call in which he hears her screaming in agony he is instantly convinced that one of those he crippled is exacting revenge.
With the clock ticking, Kang-do begins his desperate search to uncover the culprit, save the woman and the mother's love he has waited his whole life to find...
Pieta is director Kim Ki-duk's first film since Arirang - the cathartic documentary exploring, discussing (with himself) and dissecting his innermost feelings relating to increasingly vitriolic criticism of his work by the Korean media (criticism that directly led to a prolonged period of self-imposed exile during which Arirang was conceived and filmed) as well as to his guilt over the near death, by hanging, of actress Lee Na-young on the set of 'Dream' - and in one fell swoop we see a return to form more hard-hitting than even ardent Kim Ki-duk fans could have hoped.
When Korean film critics first began waxing lyrical about how superb Pieta is, I must be honest in saying that I wondered to what extent their positivity was truly expression of their honest feelings about the film and how much simply a veiled redressing of the balance of their previous comments on the Kim Ki-duk's work as a result of finally realising the years of utter emotional trauma their words had put the director through. However, in even the early stages of watching Pieta, it quickly became undeniably clear that Kim Ki-duk had indeed produced a film worthy of each and every one of those glowing accolades.
So, what is it about Pieta that caused so many normally vitriolic and dismissive critics to change their tunes so radically? Considering the fact that - to my mind, at least - the reasons for this about turn are many; a more apt question would perhaps be "Where do I begin?"
One of the most universally cited issues with a number of Kim Ki-duk's films is with regard to his treatment of female characters - with many claiming his narratives positively reek of sexism and even misogynism on more than one occasion - but, whether or not you feel there truly is justification in those assertions, Pieta wisely focuses the majority of its brutality and direct suffering on male characters, with females (largely) dealing more with the fallout of the violence exacted on their loved ones. Of course, the mother character does get raped; does get beaten and does herself suffer but it could be said that ultimately she is the one who wields the true power in her relationship with Kang-do and is far more in control of the outcome of events and the inflicting of emotional pain.
While it is unclear if Kim Ki-duk's creation of such a narrative was, in part, a deliberate attempt to address criticisms of some of his earlier films, the end point is the same... address those criticisms, he does; therby allowing the full extent of his talent as a director to come undeniably to the fore, in the process.
As is the case with a number of Kim Ki-duk's other films, Pieta deals with characters existing on the very cusp of society and, as such, this allows for in-depth underlying social commentary and dissection of the struggles of the disadvantaged to even just survive from day to day at the same time as resolutely stating that relationships between the outwardly dysfunctional are every bit as much depictions of family as the classic nuclear familial bonds that society would much prefer us to see.
Pieta also implies that Kang-do's cold, uncaring nature and the ease with which he inflicts pain and suffering on others is a direct result of his being abandoned (directly by his mother and, by inference, society at large) - a cold, uncaring world producing heartless, self-serving individuals, if you will - further underlined by his later decision not to cripple a young man who is fully (and almost happily) prepared to sacrifice anything and everything for his child; even himself.
Ultimately, Kang-do's violence towards, and torture of, others is shown to do nothing to alleviate his own emotional hurt (regardless of that hurt being hidden and denied for many years) and in tracking down a number of his previous "victims" to try to discover who has taken his mother he is brought face-to-face not only with the realisation that the pain he inflicted was only a fraction of the pain he actually caused but also with the fact that his heartless violence was destined, sooner or later, to bring suffering to himself; almost as karma.
Scenes of torture/crippling are noticeably kept off camera throughout Pieta - the focus instead being loved ones' reactions to the brutality they (and we) hear through closed doors - but are no less searing as a result (perhaps being even more so... after all, less is more) and while the film is undeniably every bit as vicious as we've come to expect from Kim Ki-duk, there are also numerous references to heart and love throughout.
Not only that, but Kim Ki-duk could so easily have centred a large part of the narrative on the simple question of "is she/isn't she his real mother" (which is what the question appears to be in the early stages of proceedings) but instead chooses to deftly layer in far more involved elements to ensure viewers are held gripped from beginning to end.
Finally, in watching the scenes of Kang-do seeking out those he previously crippled, I couldn't help but be reminded of the concluding surreal scenes from Arirang in which Kim Ki-duk tracks down those he feels have wronged him - one by one, with a gun - and while I realise this final statement is me making assumptions to the nth degree, I nonetheless cannot shake the thought that the final segment from the director's cathartic documentary served as the embryonic basis for the narrative proceedings in the latter part of Pieta, albeit from an inverted perspective.
Jo Min-soo, Lee Jeong-jin, Woo Gi-hong, Kang Eun-jin
With Pieta, Kim Ki-duk has created a searing dramatic thriller set on the very cusp of society adding in copious social commentary, in the process. A film that is both worthy of his talent and utterly deserving of the numerous accolades it has received.
The DVD edition reviewed here is the Korean (Region 3) KD Media Limited Edition First Press version. The film itself is provided as an anamorphic transfer and there are no image artifacts (and no ghosting) present.
The original Korean language soundtrack is provided as Dolby Digital 5.1 and is well balanced throughout.
Excellent subtitles are provided throughout the main feature but English-speaking viewers should note that, as with many Korean DVD releases, there are no subtitles available on any of the extras.
- Director: Kim Ki-duk
- Language: Korean
- Subtitles: English, Korean
- Country: South Korea
- Picture Format: NTSC
- Disc Format: DVD (One Disc)
Region Code: 3
Publisher: KD Media
- ‘Have mercy’ Featurette (15:00)
- ‘Kim Ki-duk history’ Featurette (2:26)
- Pieta at the Venice Film Festival (5:00)
- Production report meeting (5:00)
- Poster photo shoot (5:00)
- Stills Gallery (2:00)