Pieta is an unnerving film. It makes you cringe with disgust, it disarms you with moments of tenderness, and it frequently veers into the unexpected. Directed by Kim Ki-Duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring, 3-Iron), the film takes place in the slum of Cheonggyecheon, an indigent part of Seoul that used to be a thriving factory town, but is now slowly being torn down in favor of erecting financial buildings. When the few surviving factory workers owe money, they fall victim to a vicious loan shark who himself finds his own challenges in the form of his long-lost mother. While Pieta might take some time to start engaging its audience, it succeeds in creating a palpable sense of unease throughout and running the emotional gamut with its two leads.
The loan shark is Gang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a seemingly emotionless man who brutally goes from debtor to debtor and injures them so that he can get repaid through their insurance money. These injuries range from amputations to leg breaking and usually take place with the factory workers’ own equipment. He cripples the men in front of their wives and mothers, causing additional emotional duress. Given the fact that the factory workers earn their livelihood from being physically capable to use their machinery, Gang-do’s handiwork also forces the now-cripples to lose everything and not be able to provide for their families.
One day, an older woman, Mi-sun (Cho Min-soo), begins following Gang-do around as he does his evil bidding. She even forces her way into his apartment, despite the fact he repeatedly slams her hand in his door, and begins to tenaciously wash his dishes for him. She insists that she is the mother who abandoned him shortly after he was born. He does not believe her, initially, and puts her through a series of incredibly cruel tests to prove to him that she is his mother. She eventually gains his trust and as the two start to bond, Gang-do starts to soften, promising that he will end his violent ways. Though Mi-sun has more in store for him than just motherly love…
At its start, the film is somewhat difficult to engage with – the film is very dark and grim-looking throughout and begins with graphic acts of cruelty at the hand of Gang-do, as he cripples quivering, grown men with a blank face. He’s an empty canvas who would blend into the woodwork if it weren’t for his feminine-looking frizzy hair. It’s hard to identity with him, or delight in his various tortures, as he’s not the most charismatic criminal. He doesn’t seem to take pleasure in crippling the factory workers, and since they are so pitiable, watching them get injured is more than a little but uncomfortable. And the sight of Mi-sun trotting after him, with a similarly expressionless face, is also a strange one. My initial thought was that she was a ghost, since her quiet stalking of Gang-do was so eerie, until other characters started to interact with her.
After perhaps one of the most unsetting moments I have seen in a film this year both Gang-do and Mi-sun start interacting on a deeper, more involved level and the film really takes off into something very dark and intriguing. And while Gang-do does soften quite a bit from his prolonged interaction with Mi-sun – the two even go shopping and try on silly glasses – the dark veil of dread never leaves, via the dark cinematography and lurking unease, which is hugely important. The pair’s transformation is somewhat jarring from assault to this bonding sequence, but it is supposed to be jarring. Gang-do is a criminal – he manifests his frustrations and doubts with terrible acts of violence. And at his core, he is a scared little boy who doesn’t have the emotional fortitude to use anything but violence to express himself.
By focusing on the intensifying relationship between Gang-do and Mi-sun, Kim wisely creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that is more than a little bit disquieting. One scene in particular really succeeds at creating this eerie sense between the characters, that things are not as they seem. Once Gang-do accepts Mi-sun as his mother, she crawls into bed with him during one of his fitful sleeps. He starts rubbing up against her, and instead of moving away Mi-sun finishes him off before washing her hands in disgust. Per the title of the film, she perhaps helps him here because of the pity she feels for his tortured nature, but is revolted by herself. Cho is rather brilliant as Mi-sun, since she always conveys this look of inner rage behind her eyes, even as she is doing the kindest act. You always wonder about Mi-sun’s motivations, and as they are revealed, her motivations never cease to surprise.
Perhaps the most admirable aspect of the film is that Kim never hits you over the head with new information or “twists.” Everything is revealed through implication, not some overly-engineered manipulations in the plot, which is so much more sophisticated a filmmaking tactic. Pieta’s denouement is so intriguing to watch and truly does bring the story of Gang-do and Mi-sun to an emotional crescendo. While the film takes some getting used to at first, its finale provides more than enough pay off for sticking with it.
The Upside: Ki-duk Kim creates an eerie sense of dread throughout the film and films some truly shocking scenes. Plot points are wisely revealed through implication and not through “twists,” and the two leads give deeply emotive performances.
The Downside: The film does take a while before it starts to engage – though once Gang-do and Mi-sun build somewhat of a rapport, it takes off.
On the Side: Pieta won the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Film Festival.