Michael Cordner from the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford gives us his thoughts on today’s Discover Tuesday title, Ki-duk Kim’s PIETA
Gangsters suffering from major mother issues were examined earlier this year in ONLY GOD FORGIVES, but Korean director Ki-duk Kim’s 18th feature, PIETA, delves deeper and more boldly to uncover the almost cosmic damage wreaked by such casualties.
The setting is a drab Korean suburb of lock-up workshops and cramped apartments. A ruthless henchman (Jeong-jin Lee) savagely deals with those who are hapless enough to have defaulted on the now-exorbitant debts owed to his loan shark boss.
Socially isolated, the protagonist is a sadist who enjoys forcing mothers to witness the punishment meted out to their sons. But his world is turned upside down when a mysterious woman (Min-soo Jo) arrives claiming to be his own mother, who abandoned him at birth. After surviving a series of brutal and degrading tests, the son accepts and bonds with the mother, at which point she just as suddenly disappears. Grief-stricken, he sets out to find her.
Taking its title from depictions of Mary cradling the dead Christ in religious art, the film expands on religious and metaphysical themes in its exploration of a fallen, rejected son who unexpectedly gains a soul – but who, in order to find his redeemer, must travel through the hell on earth that he has created. The mother’s pieta is transcendental in ways she never anticipated, while the whole climaxes in a stunning depiction of a literal via dolorosa stretching to distant, Calvary-esque hills.
Ki–duk Kim’s reputation as a filmmaking enfant terrible is firmly cemented, but for all its horror, the majority of the film’s physical violence actually takes place off-screen. The director prefers to focus on the consequences of the brutality: the pain-etched, tormented faces and broken bodies of the characters. The real evil here is poverty, emotional and above all economic. “Don’t die for money,” wails a bereaved mother, while Jo’s character laments that money “is the beginning and end of all things. Love. Honour. Violence. Fury. Hatred. Jealousy. Revenge. Death.”
The movie is shot in muted colours appropriate to its theme. Vividness is reserved for tender, defiant gestures: the sapling the son plants for his mother, the red wool in the sweater she knits for him.
The lasting pleasure of the film lies not only in its deftly constructed, twisting plot, but in watching a great director subvert his trademark excesses to fashion a truly moving and very contemporary fable.