With only a few days left of the Venice Film Festival, no clear front-runner has emerged to pick up the Golden Lion. “The Master” is probably the best-received film to date, but festival juries often shy away from the most obvious pick. “To The Wonder,” “At Any Price” and “Fill The Void” all have their fans, but all received raucous booing at critics screenings. The best movies have premiered out of competition, and many films seem like non-starters. But the best reaction we’ve heard to date across our week on the Lido came last night from abrasive, confrontational Korean director Kim Ki-Duk‘s “Pieta.”
The prolific filmmaker is not exactly known for being audience friendly, thanks to films like “The Coast Guard,”“The Isle” (which was briefly banned in the U.K. for animal cruelty), and “Bad Guy,” which swim with violence both physical and sexual. But the director has a gentler side too, as shown in his best known film, “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring,” and his two films last year, “Arirang” and “Amen” were a little mellower, relatively speaking. Given that he’s already a favourite in Venice, might he stand a chance with his latest? Well, we’re not serving on Michael Mann’s jury, but if we were, we’re not sure our vote would fall with the film, despite there being much to like about it. (Update: the film did indeed win the Golden Lion at Venice)
Plot-wise, things are certainly closer to the darker side of his work than ‘Spring, Summer.’ In an industrial area of Cheonggyecheon, South Korea, slated for immediate redevelopment, Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a loan-shark, working for a company that charges ten times the borrowed sum in interest. If their clients don’t pay up, Kang-do cripples them, using the insurance payments on their injuries to make up the difference. It’s a lonely, brutal gig, but Kang-do, who has no family, seems to actively enjoy it.
One day, however, he’s confronted by a mysterious, strange woman, Mi-sun (Cho Min-soo), who claims to be his long-lost mother, apologizing for abandoning him at birth. Initially shunning her, he eventually lets her into his home, and the two attempt an uneasy, uncomfortable (mostly for the audience…) relationship, which starts to prick Kang-do’s conscience regarding his profession. But given the number of people with grudges against him, is finally making a connection with someone putting himself, and her, at risk?
We have to confess, it’s taken a little while to crystallize our thoughts on “Pieta.” As is often the case with Kim’s work, it’s far from an easy watch: repetitive, bruising and grim, set in a scuzzy part of the world, full of even scuzzier people. The filmmaking is unshowy and relatively matter-of-fact, yet the content is almost anything but.
Early on, we certainly warmed up to the film. While it can occasionally come off as screechy, there’s a real tenderness to the two performances, particularly that of Lee, who reverts from a strong-and-silent brute to easing into the childhood that he never got to live. And the disturbing, vaguely Oedipal relationship at the core is a fascinating one, Cho subtly indicating that, if she’s right about being his mother, the apple may not have fallen far from the tree.
The setting also provides a tremendous backdrop to a film like this. Kim grew up in Cheonggyecheon himself, and has a great eye for its back alleys, the hills that surround it, and the industrial workshops, teeming with machinery, that make up the locations of the bulk of the film. you might imagine, that machinery gets put to some grisly use more than once, but for a man who once skinned a frog on screen, Kim’s mostly pretty restrained here in terms of blood and gore, letting your imagination fill in the painful blanks.
The real violence here is financial. It’s clear that the economy, and the recession (a major theme of the festival this year), is first and foremost among the director’s concerns, and the way that Kang-do and his employers prey on those they know can never repay what they borrow has some clear parallels with the mainstream banking industry.
It’s a shame then, that in the second half of the film, the interestingly twisted mother-son relationship shifts gears and becomes something closer to the kind of revenge movie that Korean cinema has become known for. It’s not quite a full-on genre exercise, but it’s probably the closest to such a thing that Kim’s ever made, and while he has his own twists to provide, it’s still a disappointingly conventional turn for the film to take.
It doesn’t help that around the same time, the directors starts to labor his point a bit – by the time Kang-do pays his third visit to some of his past victims, the theme has long since sunk in, and you’re shifting in your seat a bit. The film contains some memorable moments, and a pair of fine performances, but it’s hard not to feel that it would have proved more successful if it had stayed on the path it was heading down for the first forty minutes or so. [C+]
This is a reprint of our review from Venice Film Festival.