Kim Ki-duk’s surprise Golden Lion winner succeeds at being repellent on every level.
Ugly in both look and moral fibre, Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta paints modern South Korea as a desaturated wasteland of degenerates, savagery and metal. Businesses are cramped, cluttered hives where opportunity goes to die, while living spaces harbour desperation that festers permanently. Such an unpleasant mise-en-scène might be tolerable if Kim was interested in examining the social and emotional reasons for its existence. But the director only views misery in simple terms, composing images of sadism with a level of fleeting enjoyment that borders on the obscene.
Looking into Gang-Do’s (Lee Jeong-jin) lifeless eyes, all one sees is an ancestor of Cesare, the monster from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. His scraggly black hair, pale skin and lanky frame make Kim’s antihero look quite blatantly plucked from the universe of Tim Burton. In the film’s opening scenes, Gang-Do terrorises a series of small business owners, forcing each man to cripple himself to collect the insurance money and pay off their debts.
To amplify Gang-Do’s monstrous lifestyle, Kim tailors each shot to reveal a sadistic indifference to his daily routine. During a morning bathroom trip, he pushes aside the guts of a dead animal lying on the floor without thinking twice. Gang-Do also religiously throws a knife at a target on the other side of the room, further projecting Kim’s dim-witted treatment of his character’s numbness.
Without warning, a woman named Mi-Son (Jo Min-soo) shows up claiming to be Gang-Do’s mother. She quickly ingratiates herself into his life, earning a level of trust that turns this grown psycho into a quiet man-child obsessed with experiencing parental love and protection for the first time. Mi-Son’s motivations are obviously shady, but Kim attempts to complicate her intentions by allowing her to feel a level of sympathy and pity from Gang-Do.
That this key emotion is buried by the film’s more salacious images is the perfect indictment of Kim’s overt style. Bedtime sequences become the key culprit, each containing a different variation on the Oedipus narrative to make the situation seem all the more tragic. The film’s sporadically jerky hand-held visuals give these moments an even more disquieting effect, like we were watching a bit of porn, ogling for the most revealing angle.
When Pieta reaches its inevitable revenge climax, Kim views violence in much the same way he does sex; with cold detachment and little thought. Fittingly, Gang-Do gets put through the ringer, forced to experience the kind of traumatic loss that he has caused so many times. But his victims don’t feel any catharsis seeing their tormentor in such a state. All they experience is more humiliation.
Here, Kim’s obvious themes are signified in even more bluntly constructed compositions. Dead bodies stand in for a family, while a man’s comeuppance is visualised in a streak of blood lining the highway pavement. These images carry an inherent vileness that fits right in line with Pieta’s view of the mankind as a greedy, spiteful force that only deserves one fate. This is Kim’s cinema of repellence, and he can keep it.
A surprise Golden Lion winner offsets the mostly terrible reviews.
A repellant and simplistic revenge tale from Kim Ki-duk.
Surely one of the year’s worst.