TIFF 2012 Review: Daring ‘Pieta’ Is a Worthy New South Korean Revenge Film

Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a collector for a loan shark. He cripples his non-paying clients in order to collect the insurance money. One day a woman, played by Cho Min-soo, appears claiming to be his mother who abandoned him as a child. This discovery leads Kang-do down a path which includes reconsidering his line of work and his viewpoint on life in general.

Kim Ki-duk‘s Pieta plays wonderfully into an ever-growing subgenre of South-Korean revenge films (including I Saw the Devil, Oldboy and The Man From Nowhere). Here we’re able to enjoy a very slow burning plot as it’s broken into two separate sections. The first being where Kang-do is the collector who breaks limbs to reconcile debts, the next being where he’s a love drowned character, adoring his mother in an almost childlike state. As the film turns to that second half the reveal leads to interesting ideas of what one will do both for revenge and for love. We see characters endure in the face of despair as Kang-do’s mother goes missing and he goes hunting, believing this to be the work of one of his crippled former clients.

This film, like many of the more popular South Korean films, doesn’t shy away from disturbing imagery. When we first meet the woman claiming to be Kang-do’s mother, his skepticism meets his sadistic nature as he makes her suffer through a series of tests that serve no purpose but to torture her. We see sexual and violent things being done to Kang-do’s clients that pale in comparison to how he treats his would-be mother for the first half of the film.

Director Kim presents sexuality in an interestingly dark way as the opening shot of the film shows us Kang-do asleep having a dream that causes him to physically respond till climax. It’s a provocative character introduction, and throughout the film’s runtime we see this shift from sexual normalcy for a lonely male in his early 30s to downright bizarre behavior. While the film doesn’t fully go into Lars von Trier or Gaspar Noe territory, it does teeter on the edge of their wheelhouse when it comes to the sexual element.

Many of the revenge films that I’ve mentioned above contain more of an action core to them. This film however remains more on an emotionally haunting level than anything else. The action in Pieta is non-existent, so all we have is a twist and execution that creates cheers and cringes alike in a search for the depths people will go for satisfaction.

The Upside: The reveal and execution of the film is so well dealt with that no matter how slow you feel the story is it will engage you till the very end.

The Downside:  If disturbing mother/son relations bother you in movies, then you may have a hard time looking past it to see the gold buried beneath.

On The Side: The film won the Golden Lion award at the 69th Venice International Film Festival.

Grade: A-

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