Film review: Pieta

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 1:00am

Starring: Lee Jung-jin, Cho Min-soo, Jo Jae-ryong
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Category: III (Korean)

The 18th film written and directed by South Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk begins with a scene showing a man in a wheelchair attempting to commit suicide. Shortly afterwards, a woman's scream fills the air. Only then does the title of the work flash on the screen.

The following segment shows the dark drama's main male character - a debt collector called Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) - masturbating at home. In the bathroom, the camera lingers on the vomit he did not clean up before he went to bed the night before.

To put it mildly: the first few minutes of the 2012 Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion winner are so gross that it feels as though its controversial helmer is actively daring viewers to continue watching the rest of his unsettling psychological study. And if anyone is wondering: yes, there are indeed more shocking scenes to come before the absorbing drama reaches its conclusion.

Pieta's story begins in earnest with Kang-do going about his routine business of brutally crippling unfortunate debtors - all of them men trying to eke out a living in small metal shops in Cheonggyecheon, a run-down section of Seoul - in order to get the insurance money they are set to receive should they suffer a severe injury to a hand or break a leg.

While walking down an alley in Cheonggyecheon, he encounters a Min-sun (Cho Min-soo, above with Lee), a middle-aged woman who tells him that she's the mother who abandoned him when he was a baby.

Kang-do's initial reaction to her announcement is what one would expect of a brutish man who is feared and despised by many of those whose paths he has crossed.

Surprisingly, however, Min-sun turns out to be able to get under Kang-do's skin and make him reveal that he does indeed have a heart. While this development helps move the story along, it also weakens the film since it substantially decreases Pieta's credibility quotient as well as makes the twisted morality tale's conclusion more predictable.

While Kim's offering is on the uneven side, Cho's performance is strong throughout and her intriguing character is Pieta's true centre rather than Lee's often blank-faced one, despite his having the most screen time.

Also leaving memorable impressions are Kwon Se-in, who briefly appears as a young man who seeks to borrow yet more money upon finding out that he's going to be a father, and Jo Jae-ryong as a desperate debtor turned vengeful cripple whose rage helps him overcome the fear most others feel when in Kang-do's presence.


Pieta opens today