South Korean director Kim Ki-duk has always been a firm favourite when it comes to cinema-goers with a craving for the often surreal and the perpetually disturbing. It appeared in 2003 that Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring marked a certain change of direction for Ki-duk, with those provocative scenes replaced with those belonging to the serene and inherently poignant, yet perhaps that thought was an optimistic one for the long-term. Certainly, his films all possess those allegorical, underlying themes that inhabit Korean cinema as a whole, and as constructs his films are quite profound, yet they do contain imagery and descriptive qualities that is often hard to watch. So, it seems, where many saw Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring as a platform for nicer things to come, it appears it was merely a checkpoint, somewhere where the director could relax before pouring outwards in a tidal wave of heady offensiveness.
Therefore, it was with great trepidation that I took on the mantle of reviewing Pietà. On the one hand, I’ve always found Kim Ki-duk’s films to be interesting, and there is certainly substance beneath the superficiality of his collection, but on the other, there is usually an irksome factor to the estranged and often delusional violence that he loves to incorporate in sizeable fashion. This is likely the reason why I found the film to be both fertile in terms of artistic inventiveness, but also why it did dip and approach that area of insatiable need to smother the piece with unnecessary and, quite frankly, bewilderingly crass representation. When you have a film that begins to delve into the inhumanity of capitalism and its tendency to target those who can’t fight back, it’s just somewhat of a shame that it devolves into this story of fealty by-way-of cannibalism and incest.
Pietà opens like many drama-cum-thriller belonging to Korean cinema, insofar as it depicts someone on the threshold, clinging to life. Unfortunately, the man around whose neck a dingy rope is being draped doesn’t possess the chance happenings of coincidental escape, because he has been targeted by Pietà’s protagonist, Lee Kang-Do (Lee Jung-jin) whose primary function at this stage of the film is that of a loan collector, tasked with using brutality for those who cannot repay their debts. This ties in with the seemingly over-arching theme of capitalism and how it targets the most vulnerable. Yet, this entire decrepit existence for Lee Kang-Do is ruined when a strange woman appears, claiming to be his mother (Jo Min-su). Their relationship is the planned epicentre of this film, around which Kim Ki-duk unfortunately begins his decline into abrasiveness, and just hackneyed manifestations of barbarity and masochism.Pietà won the Golden Lion at the recent Venice film festival. In his appraisal of the film, Michael Mann, who presided over the jury stated that it was the seduction through visceral imagery that gave it such impetus. Such is the nature of Pietà, and in fact of any auteur-provocateur, that there will nearly always be interchanging views dependant on the person asked for their views. Whilst Mann is right that there is a visceral seduction to this film, you can’t help but feel the pure vacuousness of many of the scenes trumps any lucid, grimy atmospheric intensity. When Lee Kang-Do inserts his hand into his mother’s vagina, it feels designed in such obvious construction that the provocation of the scene is lost because there’s no need for discussion or thought; it’s far too opaque, the director going so far as to having the character spell out the reasoning behind the attempted metaphor through his dialogue. It feels almost juvenile in its assumption that the viewer isn’t intelligent enough to conclude that which Kim Ki-duk makes obvious.
It’s a shame that Pietà’s grandiose ideas of penance, purification and redemption therefore get lost amidst a host of disagreeable instances, because they thoroughly prevent any natural allegory to be exhumed. Whilst the first act of the film demonstrates the turmoil of isolated living and inability to survive, the second act ruins any ruminations of overall grandeur by force-feeding the viewer contrived, and occasionally nonsensical scenes that even Lars Von Trier might mock for being so capricious. The acting by Lee Jung-jin and Jo Min-su is of a high quality, but alas, the writing and thought-process behind the film is desperate at times that their professional work can’t really do a lot to prevent the film crumbling amidst Kim Ki-duk’s strange desires. There is a good film to be made here, and that of course is the problem, because a hypothetically decent watch doesn’t replace that which obviously hasn’t worked.