A strange and brutal mediation on the absences of a motherly figure set in the desperate backstreets of Seoul
Referencing the Italian language notion of piety and signifying the depiction of the Virgin Mary cradling the corpse of Jesus, Pieta mixes Christian iconography with brutal shock violence to craft an unsettling mix.
It ponders the importance of a material figure in the life of underworld enforcers, but also exposes the desperation of workers in Seoul and their willingness to engage dangerous loan sharks.
Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a brutal loan shark debt enforcer devoid of empathy. The loan sharks demand a 10-times repayment on debts and on inevitable non-payment, Kang-do leaves them disabled to claimed on a pre-signed insurance application.
He lives a solitary life without no mention of a family and mechanically fulfils his enforcer duties without so much as a change in expression.
Suddenly a middle-aged woman, Mi-son (Jo Min-soo), visits claiming to be his long-lost mother. Despite Kang-do's rejection of this claim, Mi-son obstinately follows him as he continues to fulfil his barbarous duties.
Mi-son's affection for Kang-do starts to soften his rough edges as he’s given the maternal affection so starved from his life so far.
The consequences of his violence towards the desperate workers then collides with the new-found realisation that he now has someone to care for in his life.
A couple of scenes have jarred audiences, touching on the notions of cannibalism and the sexualisation of the mother-son relationship, but considering the director is Kim Ki-duk, who produced shock generators such as The Isle (2000), this is comparatively soft fare.
The film is Ki-duk's most successful on the festival circuit, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and going on to become the first Korean film to receive a top honour at one of the top three international film festivals of Venice, Berlin and Cannes.
For local audiences and fans of Korean cinema, Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003) and 3-Iron (2004) emanate as more impactful works, but that’s not to say Pieta does not pack its own punch.
The film’s violence, while constant and unapologetic, maintains the film’s overall uneasiness and mystery. Mi-son's motivations are questionable, but you develop a personal desire for them to be true.
There is no relatability to Kang-do for audiences, but there is a relatability to the notion that everybody (or at least some people in particular) need a parental figure to provide love and support.
The role of the desperate workers operates as an interesting side-story to the central Kang-do and Mi-son narrative. The workers are depicted in tiny backstreet shacks, attempting to accumulate working wages from basic repair and metal work.
While it seems easy to judge those who engage with loan sharks, such a wide range desperate and motivation is displayed by the workers it feels a trap wider than many envisage.
Pieta makes for an unsettling and engaging watch, and true to Ki-duk's wider body of work it is one that develops in equally surprising and facinating ways.