Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

South Korean enfant terrible Kim Ki-duk is back. Close behind the director of 3-Iron and Bad Guy there usually hovers descriptive baggage of 'dark', 'twisted' 'controversial' and so on and so on. At the time of writing this review Kim Ki-duk's follow up to Pieta, Moebius, has had to endure a volley of cuts in order to pass South Korean censors given its depictions of incest (subject matter which Pieta itself does not avoid). As for Pieta, a gripping but overly tortuous and heavy handed mother-son morality tale with a last act twist and plenty of Christian imagery and allegories, it is certainly not the film likely to cut any of that baggage loose. It has, however, won its director the Golden Lion at Venice.

This tale about guilt, vengeance and consequences is set in the coalface of the relentless machine of 'Asian Tiger' capitalism that was let loose over the last half century on Kim's homeland. We the viewers never get to go to the city of Cheonggyecheon (not named in the film) seen constantly in the background. Instead the city's skyscrapers cast their shadow over the suburban village/shantytown where the bulk of the ensuing drama occurs - a warren of noodle bars, narrow alleys and greasy workshops. The film's colour pallette is as gun metal grey and greasy as the machines in the workshops. Before we have heard any dialogue the setting and cinematography make the message clear (rather heavy-handedly in fact)- here is an industrial backwater where the outsiders, the castoffs, the forgotten, have to make their own rules and lives with what is left. Everyone is a victim or predator. Some, maybe all, are both.

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Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a loan shark living a solitary, brutal and repetitive existence in the village. His daily routine involves sleeping late, masturbating, then stumbling out of his filthy and spartan flat to unleash brutality down on those desperate local borrowers unable to repay his moneylender boss. As several lengthy and wince-inducing scenes show, Kang-Do is an expert at pain infliction, though he seems as much robotic about it as malicious. The industrial presses, nail guns and saws of the village offer plenty of ways to inflict torture on their pleading owner/operators. But Kim also shows us the cruel banality of this brave new world where injuries can be meekly accepted by many victims in full knowledge that an insurance payment is on the way as a fallback option to cover the debt. Limbs, fingers and teeth are pondered and removed as if they were casino chips being handed over to a cashier. One particular borrower, a musician with a baby on the way, seems to actually impress Kang-Do with his determination to lose as many limbs and digits as possible to increase the insurance payout to better provide for his wife and child. The low budget digital cinematography effectively projects and captures the harrowing atmosphere of this claustrophobic, industrial hell hole where these transactions, if you can call them that, occur.

But Kang-Do's mechanical existence is upset one day when a mysterious woman (Cho Min-soo) appears in front of him claiming to be his long-lost mother. She cleans his apartment, cooks for him, picks up his trash, and even lashes out protectively at those who attack Kang-Do. Meek and frequently weeping with guilt, she seems prepared to endure any insult, any blow, to repay the debt she says she owes Kang-Do for abandoning him years ago. After coldly and violently rejecting her at first, Kang-Do is eventually worn down into accepting her into his apartment and his wider life. The process almost seems to happen without his realising it, and before long Kang-Do is entering a state of almost childlike bliss and dependency in this new and twisted mother/madonna-son (or is it mother-son?) relationship. Which makes the ensuing, love driven manipulation and fall all the more soul-ripping.

Intense and committed performances from Cho Min-soo and Lee Jung-jin combined with the oppressive atmosphere Kim creates make for a raw and very sad viewing experience laden, perhaps too thickly, with melodrama and religious/sexual subtexts for viewers to chew over. Kim himself has described the film as “ not 100% about money, though. It's about what happens between people in an extremely capitalist society, how those problems begin and how they affect people's feelings towards one another. Most people living in this modern world are trapped by this barrier called money and as soon as we are trapped, we become victims. I think everyone becomes a victim and an assailant despite themselves. Pieta is about people who have to act out those two roles whether they want or not. I hope that people that watch it will think seriously about the kind of extreme capitalism in which we live.”

Reviewed on: 04 Sep 2013
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A loan shark is confronted by a woman who claims to be his missing mother.
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Director: Kim Ki-duk

Writer: Kim Ki-duk

Starring: Jo Min-soo Jo, Lee Jeong-jin, Woo Ki-Hong, Kang Eunjin

Year: 2012

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea


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