Pieta conjures up many beautiful artistic images of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus, the most familiar of which is undoubtedly Michelangelo’s sculpture, Pieta. In fact, the poster for Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk‘s latest film, Pieta, employs the face of Mary from that very sculpture with a dash of blood, which points to its violent narrative. The disturbing scenes in Ki-duk’s film (and there are many) are haunting images that comprise a larger cinematic whole that delves deeply into Christian themes of sin, forgiveness, and redemption.
Pieta opens on a quick scene of a most unusual suicide followed by a woman’s terrified scream. It then cuts to a scene of a young man, Lee Kan-do (Lee Jeong-jin), masturbating in bed. He receives a text message, a picture of another man. He pays a visit to this man, and we quickly learn that Kang-do is the muscle behind a small-time loan shark. Needy small business owners borrow money at extreme interest, and when they cannot pay up, Kang-do “cripples” them and takes the payout from an insurance policy they signed upon agreeing to the loan. He is good at his job, which means he is unforgiving, quiet, and ruthless.
Things go smoothly for Kang-do until a mysterious woman, Mi-Son (Jo Min-soo) approaches him in an alley and says that she is the mother who abandoned him at birth. She sets about trying to participate in his life as if to make up for lost time. In the process, she defines persistence as she washes his dishes, buys him food, and cooks for him. Kang-do is reluctant to embrace her and verbally and physically abuses her. He eventually puts her through truly nauseating (to the audience) tests to prove her motherhood. When she “passes,” the two reconnect and wander around the city doing normal parent/child things. However, we soon realize that all is not as it seems, and one of Kang-do’s past assignments comes back to terrorize him, repaying the violence that he so mercilessly meted out before.
Writer/director Ki-duk has given audiences, simultaneously, a profoundly political and deeply intimate film. Though the two are closely intertwined, it will suffice to consider them separately. Kang-do is the “muscle” for a loan shark who provides money for small business owners attempting to make it on their own in the face of a surging wave of capitalism and urban expansion. High rises are fast approaching the slums. These small business will not only be literally crippled by Kang-do, but they will ultimately be leveled and displaced by the larger corporations that lay waste to their storage-shed operations. Ki-duk seems to be asking us who’s the worse criminal, the invading businesses or the loan shark? At least Kang-do and his employer let the shopkeepers keep their way of life, even if it is more difficult to work after Kang-do pays them a visit.
The personal element of Pieta is far more disturbing and challenging. There are troubling sexual and violent images here to be sure, which frustrate the possibility of forgiveness that Ki-duk holds out for Kang-do. There is, at least, a definite visual Christian framework that Ki-duk establishes very early in the film. After Kang-do finishes masturbating in the first scene in which we meet him, Ki-duk cuts to an exterior shot of a store-front church next door that features a cross and a sign that reads, “Hallelujah Forever.” Ki-duk occasionally cuts to this cross throughout the rest of the film, as if reminding readers of the spiritual and theological stakes of the narrative. It might also be a nod to the growing presence of Christianity in the region.
Mi-Son’s presence in Kang-do’s life (SPOILER though ultimately an act of revenge END SPOILER), serves a divine function. She is the catalyst that causes him to reassess his life’s work, that allows him to eventually show mercy to a customers who default on their loans (ANOTHER SPOILER although is would-be victims, for profound reasons, are happy to undertake his work themselves END SPOILER). She might literally be the most haunting “hound of heaven,” we’ve ever seen in film. The relationship between the two, as disturbing as it is, raises a profound question. Reviewing the film for NPR, Keith Phipps asks, “What does it mean to practice virtue in the service of a faith that can never be verified — one that might even be misplaced?”
It takes a real talent to balance the disturbing and offensive with the tender and sweet, but Ki-duk pulls it off brilliantly. Ki-duk shows masterful restraint with violence, forcing us to imagine what takes place rather than showing us. The cinematography helps add balance the grotesque with the beautiful. It’s hard to think of two other actors doing a better job than Lee Jeong-jin and Jo Min-soo, who themselves are not only beautiful people but capture the subtleties of each charter in ways that add layers to what could have easily just been another revenge fantasy. At the end, Ki-duk leaves us with as haunting (and hopeful?) a conclusion as we’re ever likely to see.
Pieta (104 mins.) contains scenes of gruesome violence and truly disturbing sexuality. It is in limited theatrical release and available to rent or buy on iTunes. Not for the faint of heart.