For a while it seemed as if Kim Ki-Duk, the South Korean auteur best known in the west for the The Isle and the brilliant Buddhist fable Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring – both films that mix contemplative drama with moments of shocking brutality – might be through with traditional filmmaking. After the near-death of an actress on the set of his 2008 picture Dream, Kim downed tools, the only film to emerge for over three years being the oddball semi-documentary Arirang, in which he appears to undergo a complete mental breakdown whilst living in a tent in his front room.
But it seems that rumours of his retirement were overstated, because the director has now returned to much the same prolific form as before. His latest film is the hugely controversial Moebius, currently causing a stir on the festival circuit, while last year’s Venice award-winner Pieta finally arrives in the UK cinemas this week. Taking its name from Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Mary cradling the Christ, this is a typically divisive tale of familial dysfunction, obsession, dependency and ultimately revenge.
Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a violent, insular young man who works as an enforcer for a local loan shark. His particular method of extracting money from debtors involves getting them to sign an insurance policy before they experience some highly unpleasant ‘accident’ upon which they can claim a premium. Into this lonely, immoral existence comes Jang Mi-sun (Jo Min-su), a 40-something woman who claims to be the mother who abandoned him at birth. Mi-sun will not leave Kang-do alone, even when subjected to some pretty unpleasant humiliations, and slowly this childlike thug opens himself to the possibility of someone else in his life. But suffice it to say that this family reunion does not end happily.
Throughout his career, Kim has focused on young male outsiders – The Isle’s criminal on the run, 3-Iron’s housesitting loner, Spring Summer’s conflicted Buddhist. But few have been quite so withdrawn as Kang-do. His daily existence is a monotonous circle of threats, violence and intimidation, punctuated by only eating, sleeping and wanking. He has no friends, and until Mi-sun arrives in his life, no family. It seems as if there is nothing remotely likable about him – and yet the shifts in sympathy that Kim achieves as the film continues are extremely impressive, finding a surprisingly depth of pathos to the character.
The first 30 minutes of Pieta are unquestionably tough-going. Kim shoots the depressing urban sprawl of Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon district in jarring, handheld style, and the scenes detailing Kang-do’s job are as nasty as you’d expect. Thankfully the arrival of Mi-sun provides the film with a gripping charge, and helps elevate the material beyond the standard revenge drama direction it seemed to be heading in.
With even less dialogue than her co-star, Jo Min-su acts with a quietly frightening intensity, allowing her enigmatic mask to fall in only a few key moments. The reasons that Mi-sun has sought Kang-do out after so many years might not be that hard to guess, but Mi-sun refuses to drop her guard, even as her intentions for the man she claims is her son become clear. Although title of the film implies an artistic and symbolic grandeur that the film never quite achieves, Jo Min-su’s commitment to an often difficult role ensures that this twisted relationship remains a compelling one.
Pieta is hardly Kim Ki-Duk’s best work – it lacks the originality of 3-Iron or the transcendent beauty of Spring Summer. But few filmmakers are as skilled at juggling elements that seem quite at odds with each other. He never wallows in his graphic depictions of violence and sex – they serve a higher purpose, exposing the frailties of the human condition and finding tenderness in even the most desperate of situations.
Pieta is out now in the UK.
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