Cho Min-soo, left, and Lee Jung-jin star in a scene from director Kim Ki-duk’s “Pieta,” which is a strong contender for the Golden Lion prize at the 69th Venice film fest.
By Kwaak Je-yup
What can wash our sins away? In Kim Ki-duk’s “Pieta,” it is our own blood.
Having premiered at the Venice Film Festival and opened in selected theaters in Seoul this week, the latest work by Korean cinema’s enfant terrible may draw reference from Christian art’s depiction of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus but nobody in the film abides by the religious values. They go directly against them, in fact.
A debt collector goes around the dilapidated industrial area around Cheonggye Stream, downtown Seoul, to cripple the debtors for insurance money. The impoverished victims and their family members resort to suicide and vengeance. There is no room for pity or mercy. If Mary were to star in the film, she would go hang the sons of Jerusalem’s leaders and then kill herself to repent.
But Kim also puts motherly love at the center of this cesspit, showing how a ruthless loan shark can become a baby when a mother, or in this case, a mysterious visitor who claims to be her appears on the orphan’s doorstep.
The first half, which these two stories make up, is nearly flawless, helped by masterful direction, stunning cinematography and inspired acting. What mars the film is the theme of revenge, which dominates and keeps repeating itself in the second half, up until the end credits.
For the most part, Kim makes sure the film moves at a swift pace, never dragging even with the heavyweight subject. The frightening scenes inside the metal workshops, machines engorging body parts, as well as those at the sickly white apartment building of the protagonist are a visual feat. He may never show the truly bloody scenes but manages to insert very graphic images, those of body parts, meat and fish, to the audience.
Kim is helped by Cho Min-soo, who gives the performance of her lifetime and is deservedly considered a contender for the best actress prize in Venice. Her femme fatale is never exaggerated; neither is her vulnerable persona. Her only fault is the confession scene in the end, where she loses her inscrutability. This is, however, more due to the unrealistic lines written by Kim.
Meanwhile, her co-star Lee Jung-jin is barely adequate as the male lead Kang-do, which literally means a robber in Korean. With the inexplicable black eyeliner in his lashes, he curses like a sailor, but the lines never feel natural to his voice or facial expression. The brutal violence is more suitable, however.
The supporting cast members are universally magnificent; the choice was impeccable.
The ending, which this reporter will not spoil, is ultimately the film’s downfall. Predictable for a director with a thirst for blood, but it may have been better to end one scene earlier, producing a much more thought-provoking and ambiguous finale to this intense journey.
Instead, as it is now, “Pieta” just shows everyone as revenge-hungry monsters, driven by financially-strapped circumstances. Since his first interviews about this film, the director has openly called this work his critique of overly capitalistic modern society and its capacity to destroy civic virtues and humanity.
But by trying to achieve this goal, he ended the film on a perversely preachy note and robbed the audience of an opportunity to think about the beautifully complex.
That bloody sacrifice, however, did not save the movie, rather doing just the opposite.
“Pieta” is now showing in selected theaters. Rated 18 and over. Runs for 104 minutes. Distributed by Next Entertainment World (NEW).