Director(s): Kim Ki-duk
Release Year: 2013
Everything in Kim Ki-duk’s 18th film, Pieta, is formulaic and feels less and less original as it continues. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I realized by the time the credits rolled after a minute of staring at an empty, black screen. No, Pieta does something very interesting with characters that slightly makes up for its repetitive structure, heavy-handed capitalist themes, and frequent disregard for logic. You will see the twist of this film coming from a mile away, but it is more about the effect it has on the main character, than what its effect will be on the viewer. Pieta builds an atmosphere which the film tries to live up to, but sometimes gets too bogged down in attempting to send a political message over the sounds of screams and machinery, that it loses the viewer’s attention.
Right away, Pieta sets the mood of the film perfectly, as the audience witnesses a paraplegic committing suicide. Then right afterwards, we’re thrust into the bedroom of our main character, Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), who is masturbating while sleeping. That is all the set-up you need to know that this movie is not going to be about the beauty of life. Introduce the fact that Kang-do is a ruthless man working for loan sharks, and you get your introduction to the violence of the film. Everything you would expect from a revenge film is present in this movie, including the explanation as to why Kang-do acts the way he does. Then a woman appears on his doorstep claiming to be his mother (Jo Min-su), and that temporarily lightens the mood, except for a very sinister vibe running all throughout even the most cheerful of scenes.
The elements of Pieta that irked me the most though, weren’t related to the violence, but the cinematography and score. Mismatched musical cues unintentionally turn some dark moments into jokes. However, composer Park In-Young does manage to create some sorrowful pieces of music, but most of the time they conjure up feelings of a soap opera, rather than a chilling revenge drama. First-time cinematographer Jo Young-jik also invokes the same soap opera atmosphere as the music does, but at times is able to capture harrowing moments in beautiful fidelity. More often than not, scenes will become overly melodramatic because of camera techniques, and feel jarring in relation to what is happening on screen. Only sometimes does it betray the atmosphere of the film, but when it does, it’s almost laughable.
What is most crucial to this film, in order to make it have any chilling effect on the viewer, is the acting prowess of the two lead actors. Jo Min-su perhaps stands out as the mother of Kang-do, delivering a performance that is reminiscent of Eihi Shiina’s turn in Takashi Miike’s Audition, which has a similar vibe at times to Pieta. Jo balances an eerie, methodical presence with the troubled demeanor of a woman worried about her son. Meanwhile, Lee Jung-jin carries the film as Kang-do, and rightfully so, because nothing is more important in this film than having Kang-do’s feelings properly displayed to the audience. His character is what Pieta is all about, and is what sets this movie apart from other revenge films. Both actors are given enough of a character arc to present great performances, but Kang-do in particular goes through a particular transformation which Lee portrays astutely.
There’s a lot to complain about with Pieta, even though it is a fairly promising film. The heavy-handedness of the movie’s capitalist themes, becomes a bit too much very quickly, with Kang-do torturing blue-collar workers and small-time business managers all while reiterating – with minute variances in situations – the same theme over and over. There are also religious undertones (hence the title of the film referring to Michelangelo’s statue of Mary holding the body of Jesus post-crucifixion) but they don’t really amount to anything, and if there is supposed to be a parallel between the main characters and Mary and Jesus, then I can’t help but feel like the film emulates that poorly. What shines over these problems is the character of Kang-do, a man who has been without a mother since birth and as an adult is only now able to experience his childhood when his mother returns to him. The arrival of his mother is when his character’s actions become more justified, feeling both like necessary pieces to his character and to a revenge film.
Pieta‘s acting, atmosphere, and characters all make up for the mechanical and routine structure of the film’s plot. While Kang-do’s violence is justified by the end of the film, there are still a lot of pieces of the puzzle that are missing, such as his involuntary masturbation and a few things his mother does that aren’t necessary at all, but do add to the shock value. If you just want to watch a creepy film, you could do worse than Pieta, and if it’s a character study you’re looking for, Kang-do is another tortured soul that is expertly written by Kim Ki-duk and portrayed by Lee Jung-jin. As a revenge film however, Pieta is fairly by-the-numbers, seeming more like a competently written love letter to the revenge films of Japan and South Korea, than another excellent revenge film itself.