The controversial Kim Ki-duk spins a brutal morality tale in "Pieta"
After "Arirang", the self-reflective documentary about his personal failings and struggles, controversial director Kim Ki-duk has returned to the movie scene with "Pieta", a gruesome revenge tale about a cruel debt collector running into a woman who claims to be his mother.
The movie has almost every element that would make an audience uncomfortable and feeling sick - it's awfully violent, deals with incest and human nature at its worst.
In spite of its utterly violent subject matter, however, it is a powerful and moving study of good and evil, longing and belonging, as well as money and contemporary capitalism in its worst form. In the end, no character in the film is evil by nature; Kim's exploration of affection and conscience, which is deftly interwoven with the movie's plot of revenge, is also notably exceptional.
"I wanted to talk about capitalism and its problems with this movie," Kim said after receiving the Best Picture prize in December at the 33rd Blue Dragon Film Awards in Seoul. "I hope to see the kind of society that values people first, not money."
His bleak morality won the top prize Golden Lion at last year's Venice International Film Festival, making Kim the first Korean to receive the honour.
The film begins as Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a pitiless man who works as a debt collector for a loan shark, visits the run-down industrial slum - which in fact exists in Cheonggyecheon in real-life Seoul - where metal labourers suffer from financial destitution and debt. The workers know that their dingy shops will soon disappear because of the city's redevelopment plans, and the view of Seoul's downtown, which is packed with high-rise buildings, makes a striking contrast with the dingy neighbourhood.
Kang-do collects the money in the most inhumane way possible. If the debtors don't make their payments, he forces them to purchase work injury compensation insurance. When the mechanics fail to pay what they are due, including the extremely high interest, he does not wait to cripple them. In the presence of their family members, he chops the victims' fingers off using their work machines, or throws them off a high building to break their legs permanently. Kang-do then takes their insurance money.
Kang-do has never had a family of his own. He does not fear revenge, because he literally has nothing to lose. The man is also completely pitiless when the victims beg in tears, asking him for more time to make the payments, telling him they have a family to take care of. But things change when he runs into a mysterious woman (Cho Min-soo) who claims to be his mother.
A number of films have dealt with loan shark victims in the past, including director Byun Young-joo's 2011 thriller "Helpless". The victims exist in the real-world, very often making the headlines in the news. The slum in Cheonggyecheon, consisting of small machine workshops, really exists. All of the characters in "Pieta" and their tragic stories are believable. After being crippled by Kang-do, the former-mechanics end up being street beggars, or become completely dejected and rely on alcohol. No South Korean movie in the past has delved into the issue and the lives of the victims so explicitly, to a degree that it's hard to watch with eyes open.
Kim worked as a mechanic at a factory right after graduating from elementary school. He may or may not have been inspired to make this film based on his own experience. But there is rare grasp of human tragedy when Kim explores the relationship between the machine and the human body. Machines are operated by humans, but they are also capable of destroying the human body.
Cho Min-soo is dominating as the mysterious woman, and her performance makes the character's vengeful actions convincing. Lee Jung-jin, however, failed to deliver the debt-collector's vulnerability at times. His character required more skilled and nuanced acting, especially because he transforms into a different person upon running into the woman who later becomes the most important person in his life. He also wears black eyeliner throughout the movie - which must have been an effort to add the "evil" quality to the character - but it simply distracts. The make-up makes him look like a K-pop idol.
Kim also briefly studied theology in his 20s, deeply inspired by Christianity. The director has said the film, as well as its title - the masterpiece sculpture of Jesus and Virgin Mary by Michelangelo as well as the Italian word for 'pity' - reflects the collective "need to ask for mercy" in this contemporary, capitalist world. Kang-do is no Jesus, and the woman is no Virgin Mary. But everyone is a victim in this movie, including the one who everyone calls "the devil", and it is hard not to feel sorry for them. Kim has chosen the right title.