A vicious, torture-happy debt collector with some severe sexual peccadilloes is, erm, softened by the return of his estranged mother in Kim Ki-duk’s deeply unsettling Pieta (as we’re reminded by the opening credits, his eighteenth effort).Whether or not she’s actually of any relation to him is the pivot on which the movie uneasily rests. Is it a tale of redemption or revenge? In Kim’s version of an undignified South Korea – where a person is only worth what they can pay back, plus interest - there’s little to separate the two.
Television star Jo Min-su is an enigmatic wonder as the would-be mum, Mi-son. After appearing before Gang-do (Lee Jung-jin), she must endure a series of trials before he’ll even entertain the thought of her matronage. Such feats include cleaning his bloodstained apartment, eating his testicle, and letting him return from whence he came. (That is as politely as I’ll be able to phrase it.) Eventually, she wins him over. And, once he willingly reattaches himself to her apron strings, she sees to fruition an elaborate ruse that’ll infantalise him even further.
Kim’s tale examines the unsatisfying, unquenchable thirst for vengeance just as his South Korean contemporary, Park Chan-wook, did numerous times last decade (specifically with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). It’s the plight of the incomplete person, and Pieta is full of those. The vignettes of hard-fought, lower class lives (upon which Gang-do sporadically descends) are brutally realised. A desperately poor father-to-be asks to be mutilated so he can collect the insurance payout, and that’s perhaps the least bleak scenario we’re presented with. It’s certainly not a fond portrait of Kim’s home country, nor capitalism. (“What is money?” one debtor asks, reflecting on their years of rampant spending, mere moments before murdering themselves.)
As terrible event heaps upon terrible event, you begin to wonder if the experience of watching Pieta is worth the emotional trouble it wreaks. (Look to the picture’s Wikipedia page, where no less than three characters are credited purely in relation to their own suicide.) There’s no way around recommending Pieta without addressing its mostly unpleasant nature. But I will. Recommend it, that is. Through raw performances and the use of cinematographer Cho Yeong-jik's unblinking camera, Kim delivers a scathing social satire in his distinct style. See it. Maybe just don't see it with your mum.