Even before the first image of an ominously hanging, rusty hook, Pieta comes to CPH PIX Film Festival with a great deal of infamy. The latest from South Korean, art-house provocateur Kim Ki Duk (3-Iron, The Isle) this unnerving revenge drama wowed last year’s Venice Film Festival jury so much that it went on to beat Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master to the coveted Golden Lion award. Is it a better film than that aptly titled PTA project? Absolutely not. Is Pieta a gritty, harrowing and wholly engrossing exercise in cinematic tolerance? You’re damn right it is.
Li Jung-Jin stars as Kang-Do, the merciless henchman to a crooked Seoul loan shark. Living in a threadbare apartment, with a diet consisting of half-cooked meat, he scuttles across the city, ruffling up people’s feathers and making sure they pay up their debts, or else suffer the brutal consequences. His lonesome, pitiful existence is transformed by the arrival of Mi-Sun (Jo Min-Soo), an elderly woman claiming to be his estranged mother. Seeking repentance and the love of the inhumane monster she birthed and abandoned, the disbelieving Kang-Do puts her through a slew of horrific tests that will prove their bloodline, from eating dismembered body parts, to unsolicited incest. Boundaries are crossed, taboos busted open, and a repugnant relationship ensues.
Despite the industrial slum setting and the subtext of tooth/limbless capitalism, Pieta conforms to a typical Greek tragedy plotline. With each revelation more traumatic and sickening than the last, Kim tells the story with brute emotional force and savagery, without ever resorting to the ultra-violence made so common in South Korean cinema from the likes of Park Chan-Wook and The Vengeance Trilogy. While Jo Young-Jik’s curious handheld cinematography may look away from the most distressing of graphic acts, the pain lingers on the screen through Li and Jo’s fantastic, expressionistic acting. The pair have a terse, inflammatory chemistry which is so enthralling that the mother-son relationship is all the more sickening.
Perhaps the film’s success in Europe isn’t all that surprising. Tackling the cruel storyline through emotional heft – without the archetypal glossy production values of the region – Pieta could be mistaken for a Lars von Trier or Gaspar Noé project. With a sublime first act, Kim gets lost in the knotty narrative he has laid out before him, and ties everything up in a stirring denouement that brings some genuine heart to the otherwise pitiful portrait of dog-eat-dog, Seoul city-living.
In that brilliant opening third, Mi-Sun turns to Kang-Do to denounce money as the ‘beginning and the end of all things: love, honour, violence, fury, hatred, jealousy, revenge, death.’ Unsavoury topics abound, Kim Ki-Duk combats them all with severe conviction in Pieta. If you can stomach such callousness, then this is diatribe is well worth a watch.
Pieta is screened as part of CPH PIX Film Festival’s ‘Asian Connection’ series. Find out more, and book tickets, at the festival website.