South Korean director Kim Ki-duk has made 18 movies, but his prolific output has not mandated an increase in scale. "Pieta," a curiously engaging and wickedly twisted tale of crime and punishment on multiple levels, displays its theatrical minimalism like a dour badge of honor. The entire narrative focuses on a pair of tortured characters unraveling the demons of their past. Kim's intense portrait is enhanced by the closeness he maintains to his subjects' fluctuating emotions. The movie looks blatantly frugal but, as it sounds a deeply sorrowful note, never cheap.
At its center is menacing anti-hero Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a pitiless thug tasked with gathering loans from impoverished residents of a blue-collar factory town. More hitman than collecting agent, he usually leaves his penniless victims in a crippled state, ironically using the very machinery that provides their livelihoods to mete out their punishments. Deaf to cries for mercy, Kang-do continues his destructive path with no reservations, until a somber woman (Cho Min-soo) steps into his warpath claiming to be his long-lost mother. Sticking to Kang-do's side no matter how hard he tries to shake her, the new arrival slowly works her way into the angry man's life and softens him up. By the time that happens, however, he may have already dug his own grave. Kang-do's discovery does nothing to affect the morbid restrictions of his existence.
As a result, while Kim tracks Kang-do's transition from unfeeling loner to appreciative son, "Pieta" never shakes its dreary atmosphere. The movie is populated by waves of desperate acts: One of Kang-do's victims welcomes his punishment, claiming he only wanted "to spend money and then die"; another freely offers up a limb in the hope that he can gain another loan to support his family. When Kang-do forms a bond with his newfound relative and starts to warm up, he discovers that he's not the only cruel force in his constrained world. The omnipresent dread recalls the like-minded outlook of "No Country For Old Men" rendered in miniscule terms.
The true motives of Kang-do's mother are less relevant than the impact they have on the man's worldview. Kim wrote the movie in the aftermath of an earlier production in which one of his castmembers accidentally died, a tale recounted in last year's diary film "Arirang," which Kim recorded in the solitary cabin where he wrote the screenplay for "Pieta." Like "Arirang," the new movie contains a palpable sadness that permeates each character's motives. Everyone has goals but no prospects for success. The title draws from the Michelangelo sculpture of the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus as he bleeds to death, and while there's nothing spiritual about the arc of "Pieta," plenty of people die in order for Kang-do to realize his sins. It just takes him a long time to realize it. Even though he forms a connection with the woman, her presence merely provides him with a wake-up call, not an exit plan.
Kim's movies are generally grim, disturbing affairs, but "Pieta" leaves much to the imagination in favor of its unsettling implications. Trading shock for claustrophobic unpleasantness, Kim's screenplay empathizes with a villain's burgeoning regrets. He burrows into a dark place and traps us there: At first distrustful of his alleged mother's claims, Kang-do assaults her sexually and subjects her to other physical humiliations, but when he finally forms a bond with her, the reality of his behavior barrels down on him with vengeful force. The final twist involves a stunning role reversal that caps the central notion pervading its narrative: "Pieta" proves that the intrusion of inescapabale guilt can have a more brutal impact than any act of violence.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having won the Golden Lion at Venice, "Pieta" may continue to gain acclaim at festivals, but it seems unlikely to receive much of a theatrical release.