It has been a year since Pietà won the Golden Bear – the highest prize at the 69th Venice Film Festival – but it has been worth the wait. The film must be one of the most bracingly original films to ever have won the prize.
Korea is known for producing quite a bit of extreme cinema over the last 15 or 20 years and this film is about as shocking as it gets. However it is also chock full of ideas. Director Kim Ki-Duk’s most famous film is Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring which came out in 2003 to great critical acclaim. That peaceful, meditative film followed the life of a Buddhist monk and his novice living on a floating island in the middle of a mountain lake as the seasons, and life, pass by.
Descending from the mountain to a city – in this case the working class district of Cheonggyecheon in Seoul – Pietà is a lot faster-paced than Spring, although it also contains a religious dimension. Lee Kang-do (played with impressive weary impassivity by Lee Jung-jin ) is an enforcer for a loan shark who spends his days visiting small workshops trying to extract money from the poor unfortunates who toil there. When they cannot pay, he ensures they suffer horrible industrial accidents in order for his boss to claim the insurance.
The first time we encounter Kang-do he is masturbating in bed. And he is a real w*nker – utterly ruthless. Kang-do is the sort of man without whom Al Capone – or Arturo Ui – relies for his income. Although Kim Ki-Duk does not show us the maiming of the factory owners, the relentless succession of thuggish encounters with the workshop owners is grim. They are a powerful evocation of the downside of the Korean economic miracle.
Living in complete isolation, Kang-do thinks he is an orphan. Everything changes when a woman turns up claiming to be his mother who abandoned him when he was new born. Jang Mi-sun (a remarkable performance by Jo Min-su) begins to care for him, but not before he abuses her too. All this might be too much to endure, but the film is not without hope.
The impassive monster begins to soften up and feel for his victims. As Kang-do comes closer to his mother, we see quite how his emotional development has been stunted by his childhood. Kim Ki-duk has said his film has three themes, “Money, family and the last one is atonement or redemption.”
The name gives it away – the Pietà is a subject in Christian art representing Mary holding and grieving for her dead son, Jesus, just after he has been taken off the cross. Translated as “the pity” or “the compassion”, this quality begins to suffuse the second half of the film. Although we are never entirely sure whether Mi-sun is Kang-do are related, and her motherly pity manifests in a typically idiosyncratic fashion.
Like Martin Scorsese, John Woo and Danny Boyle, Kim Ki-duk once wanted to be a priest and has said that his films are a continuation of that impulse. Some sort of redemption is found, but it is as visceral as anything Scorsese or Woo would come up with. And redemption does not mean resolution – we are left with raft of questions about parental love, forgiveness, nature vs nurture, capitalism, and just what extreme cinema is all about. Pietà is an extraordinary film.
Pietà is out in cinemas on Friday 6th September, 2013.