mon 09/12/2019

Pieta | reviews, news & interviews



Powerful Korean drama strikes in every way, not least on violence front

Korean veteran Cho Min-soo plays composure in a film of many upsets

We learn from the front titles of Pieta that it’s Kim Ki-duk’s 18th film, and it won the Korean director the Golden Lion award at last year’s Venice film festival, against strong competition. Viewers may be asking themselves a rather different question, however, namely how much do we actually look forward to a new movie from Kim? We’re a decade on from one of his masterpieces, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, with its meditative visual beauty, but that one was very much the exception in the director’s oeuvre to date.

Almost all Kim's other films have been marked by varying degrees of violence and pronounced sexual elements – actually they're not that extreme by the standards of South Korean cinema – and Pieta, despite its Catholic-referencing title, doesn't break that trend. It’s also stronger and tighter than most of his more recent work, though that doesn’t mean many are going to like it. “Scorching” hardly seems the right word, except that Pieta does scorch, but in the way that liquid nitrogen might if it was poured on your skin – an agony of cold.

Kim confines the film’s action to the Cheonggyecheon area of Seoul, one he’s known all his life: it’s a district of small-scale industry, metal workshops stuck in the past, with a profile that's changing as the Asian metropolis develops. But there’s no room for nostalgia here, even if it might seem a familiar story of the unchecked advance of capitalism: these are run-down tenements where machinery is out-of-date, slogged over by their inhabitants to eke out a living, and all too capable of causing horrific damage.

Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin, pictured above right) is a practically feral enforcer for a local loanshark, who’s utterly ruthless in his methods of collecting debts that have been ratcheted up by huge rates of interest (that’s where the machinery comes in: you wonder why the local insurance companies haven’t smelt a rat long ago). When mysterious woman Mi-sun (Cho Min-soo, main picture top) starts following him around plaintively with the words, “I’m sorry that I abandoned you”, the last thing he’s prepared to accept is that she is the mother he has never known. But after a succession of trials best left unmentioned, that’s the conclusion that eventually hits him.

You wonder why the local insurance companies haven’t smelt a rat long ago

In the process of getting to know one another, they have a discussion about money, with Mi-Sun describing it as the “beginning and the end of all things: love, honour, violence, fury, hatred, jealousy, revenge, death”. All those elements feature in Pieta, but it would be telling to say which dominates, except that the film's culmination could come right out of Jacobean tragedy. Kim does suggest a closing note of optimism, marked with a “Kyrie Eleison” in the closing moments, but it’s such a slight one and comes at the end of such an emotional slog, the tone of which is more suggested by the film's recurrent wails of pain.

Kim draws outstanding performances from his cast – Lee, the barely human hulk who finds his whole life to date challenged, and especially Cho, who has a bewildering variety of emotions fermenting behind her apparent composure. Cinematography from Jo Yeong-jik is economical, and appropriately joyless. Kim, meanwhile, is back at this year’s Venice festival with his new film Moebius, another deeply dark family drama, this time without words. It’s only been given a Korean release certificate in a censored version, which by any standards suggests even stronger stuff than Pieta. You have been warned.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Pieta

Kim does suggest a closing note of optimism, but it’s such a slight one and comes at the end of such an emotional slog


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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