Across the nineteen features of his prolific and eclectic career (including 2009’s documentary self-portrait Arirang), Korean writer/director Kim Ki-duk has been no stranger to controversy or contradiction. Earlier this week, Time Out editor Dave Calhoun tweeted from Venice, of Ki-duk’s latest Moebius, “someone just walked out… and threw up all over the floor.” This may not surprise those familiar with 2000’s The Isle, a brutal and sadomasochistic story set in an isolated fishing resort, which also caused vomiting and walkouts at its Venice debut, but it may shock those who know Ki-duk for Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… And Spring, from 2003, the director’s tender portrait of an old monk and his young apprentice living out five seasons on a floating monastery in the Korean mountains. The film’s Buddhist ideology was extended through 2005’s The Bow, a near-silent marvel transcendent in its conclusion, and Time (2006), a film about the dissonance between the internal and external self, which observes characters making confused, desperate gestures toward one another in the name of love. It is one of the most profoundly moving films I have ever seen.
All of this is context for understanding Pieta, Ki-duk’s return to the grueling, violent style of The Isle and Bad Guy (2001), but which retains a sense of spiritualism, swapping out Buddhism for a confusing Christian allegory. The story follows several days in the life of vicious loan shark Gang-Do (Jeong-jin Lee), who cripples his debtors and collects the insurance money when they can’t pay (which they never can in the ragged and destitute Cheonggyecheon, one of Korea’s newest urban projects). Gang-Do one day meets an old woman, Mi-Son (Min-soo Jo), who follows him home and claims to be the mother who abandoned him thirty years ago, and now wants to make amends. At first resistant, Gang-Do nevertheless softens, and begins to cultivate an insistently odd and unorthodox relationship with his ‘mother’.
The Pietà was Michelangelo’s sculpture of the crucified Jesus cradled by the Virgin Mary, an image recognizable to all people of the Christian faith. Given that his previous, Buddhist films were so precise in their formulation of ideas on faith, it is disappointing that Ki-duk’s invoking of the Pietà here is so crass and nugatory, seemingly only in service of a silly and predictably stomach-churning plot. There are moments – like in the wide-shot of Cheonggyecheon where we glimpse a hundred-foot cross of burning red neon, the only identifiable icon in a grey and scruffy landscape – where we feel the the director is positioned to make a (negative?) comment on faith, but his overriding philosophy in Pieta is nihilism, an idea confounded by the coiled third act which seems relentlessly committed to punishing its characters in the cruelest way possible. This may be interesting if the film’s central thesis was focused on the hermetic, dog-eat-dog world which seems to be established when Gang-do’s crippled debtors come back for revenge, but in a film whose thesis is be balanced around Christianity (the film takes on the idea of martyrdom for its finale, aiming for the lofty standard of a bleak Greek myth) it feels woefully miscalculated, an act of artless and senseless provocation.
The film’s colour palette is also realised in varying shades of po-faced black and grey; if not for the rosy blush of his cheeks, Gang-Do might blend into this surrounding like a chameleon to his own habitat. And yes, there are moments of dark humour which attempt to leaven the film’s weight, like when Gang-Do pratfalls over chicken offal while aiming his knife at a dartboard, but they prove to be minor diversions from Ki-duk’s equally foolhardy efforts to probe his character’s deeper psychology – an attempt which, at its worst, manifests in a scene of icky incestual masturbation. In the service of an idea or even a more profound image, as in The Isle, this might also have been interesting, but Pieta’s repetitively tacky symbology, dull dialogue (“Crazy bastard!” must be the most repeated phrase) and uncomplicated view of what could have been a morally sticky world (à la Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw The Devil (2010)), means it can never achieve more than the effect of prodding its audience for a reaction.
Some have claimed, with the debtors all being lower-class mechanics or machine workers of some kind, that the film – set specifically in Cheonggyecheon, I admit – is making some kind of statement on Korea’s economy, but like the invocation of Michelangelo’s Pietà I would ask them what point, and exactly how and when it is made. One scene stands out for its tenderness. One of the debtors asks Gang-Do to cripple both of his hands so that $30,000 may go to clear his capital and the other $30,000 may feed his soon-to-be-born child. Gang-Do admires the man’s commitment to fatherhood, and allows him to play his acoustic guitar for the last time. The song is terrible, but this matters little. What we are watching is a communication of the value of parenthood, and one father’s unshakable sense of good being transferred to a son for whom, it would seem, good was never an option. This scene makes a lot of sense, as does the earlier, striking image of an eel flopping and writhing down stone steps, gasping for air. We imagine the eel as Gang-Do before the scene of a father whose love is a greater force than evil, and later he becomes the eel transplanted to the tank. This image sounds simple and unaffecting. Maybe it is, but in a film as devoid of meaning or feeling as Pieta, it was enough to almost make me weep tears of joy. Call off the search, I felt like shouting, we’ve done it! We’ve found an idea, we’ve found an emotion!
Pieta is in cinemas 6th September 2013.
Director: Ki-duk Kim
Writer: Ki-duk Kim
Stars: Min-soo Jo, Jeong-jin Lee, Ki-Hong Woo
Runtime: 104 min
Country: South Korea