Written and directed by Kim Ki-duk, Pieta is the South Korean filmmaker’s 18th directorial effort (something that is expressed in the opening credit sequence), which is pretty impressive considering he has only been making movies since 1996. The evocatively titled Pieta focuses on Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a loan shark who makes his living by crippling those who cannot afford to pay back their debts, then collects on their insurance. To call Kang-do vicious would be a great understatement, as he is the type of person who will ridicule and torture his victims in ways that are simply deplorable. He is a man to be feared, and all who come in contact with him are very aware of this fact.
Like most of Kim’s work, Pieta is not afraid to walk down dingy, unsafe alleyways and into taboo territory, and things become quite complicated for Kang-do when a woman who claims to be his mother (played fantastically by Cho Min-soo) shows up and tries to force her way back into his life. Unsurprisingly, Kang-do doesn’t believe the woman, who claims to have abandoned him as an infant due to being too young and stupid to understand what she was doing. But where things begin to take a turn for the two, and when Kang-do begins to believe her story, is where things begin to get a little, well, darker.
To prove to him that she is in fact his mother, Kang-do forces the woman to eat a piece of flesh from his thigh, which she hesitantly does. Kang-do then goes on to sexually force himself on her, claiming that if she is his real mother, she will let him go back inside the place where he once came from. While this is a shocking and certainly extreme way to have to prove oneself, this could be looked at as a moment where his mother can receive some of the pain and punishment that she placed upon Kang-do by abandoning him as a child, which indirectly turned him into the man he is today.
Harsh violence and sexual deviancy are common traits in Kim’s movies, and as you can probably tell, this is no different with Pieta. Often the violence and sexual deviancy found in Kim’s work is provided by a character (often male) who is rarely considered a good person, let alone a decent one. However, that might be the brilliance of Kim Ki-duk’s oeuvre. He creates vile characters and walks them through some awful situations, then finds a way to almost ask for the audience’s sympathy, or at least give his audience the option to feel conflicted about the character. There is often a catalyst for this pseudo-sympathetic turn - an event that completely derails a character's path - and with Kang-do, it is finally being with his mother.
Being reunited with the woman who gave him life, Kang-do finds himself acknowledging the emptiness that has plagued him throughout his life, thus causing him to grow up to be so unsympathetic. There is one particular scene that brilliantly plays on Kang-do’s lifelong emptiness, where he goes to collect a debt from a man who is a month away from having a child. The man, with a strange sort of glee, tells Kang-do that he looks forward to being crippled because it will give him the chance to give his future child the opportunity that he would not be capable of providing otherwise. Kang-do, who would normally show no sympathy, responds by telling him that he envies the man’s future child. Kang-do sees a man who is willing to sacrifice himself for his child in a way that no one has ever done for him, something that has a real effect on him.
Despite the fact that Kang-do begins to find solace - and even a touch of happiness - in being reunited with his mother, there is a darkness that constantly looms overhead. Everyone has to pay their dues for the wrong they do in life, especially men such as Kang-do. And despite his metaphorical rebirth, Kang-do has led a life where salvation is difficult to earn by his many victims as well as the audience. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about this character, though Kim Ki-duk gives us the opportunity to find a trace level of sympathy in this deplorable man; it’s just up to the viewer to decide whether or not they want to grant it to Kang-do. For me, I saw a character who, in the hands of a lesser storyteller, wouldn’t have been so challenging (though Lee deserves a nod for his strong performance), but this is indeed what makes Kim Ki-duk the fantastic filmmaker that he is.
Pieta is being given a limited theatrical release on May 17th by Drafthouse Films (a complete listing of theaters and showtimes are on the site); however, if the film isn’t playing near you, it is also available to rent On-Demand.