The name Pieta is a reference to a sculpture by Michelangelo in the late 15th century. The sculpture depicts Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus after his crucifixion. Now I am not sure to what extent one could say the characters in this film resemble the Holy Virgin and Christ, but the main theme is definitely relevant. This is a film about complicated relationships between mothers and sons and truly a study of the notion of motherhood itself. This film marks legendary director Ki-Duk Kim’s true comeback after a short hiatus and two smaller productions. Pieta was a big success at the Venice film festival, being granted the prestigious Golden Lion, as well as being acclaimed at other festivals such as the IFFR.
Gang-Do is an enforcer for a loan shark, his job is to visit clients and if they refuse to cough up payment he will break their legs or something similar in order to collect on insurance money as payback. This is his life, he shows no remorse and does his job without a hitch. The only bit of humanity he shows is his loneliness which is expressed through some apparent sexual frustration. As we know, Ki-Duk Kim does not shy away from showing characters at their worst, and this is no exception. One day, Mi-Son comes along, an attractive older woman, who starts to stalk him. After a few encounters she tells him she is his mother, the mother that abandoned him as a little boy, and that she has come to apologize and make up to him.
Gang-Do does not believe a word of it at first, or perhaps does not want to believe, but as the woman keeps insisting and disrupting his daily routine, he is forced to consider the truth in her words. She observes him doing horrid things to other people but does not even attempt to stop him, for it is probably her fault that he turned out like this. Her determination slowly starts breaking down his outer wall and this leads to some remarkable scenes and an unpredictable and intense final act of the film. Pieta leans heavily on the amazing acting performances by both Jeong-Jin Lee and Min-soo-Jo. I would like to say the film is as much a visual delight as it should be, and it occasionally is, but I could not help but notice some stylistic anomalies and apparent faults that seemed unintentional. With Kim being as experienced as he is, a few strange cuts and zooms truly struck me as odd, as if production might have been slightly rushed, but aside from that the color schemes accentuate the grimy urban underground environment beautifully. In addition the minimalistic use of music is a powerful feat.
For those familiar with Kim’s full filmography this film will definitely feel more akin to his earlier films such as ‘Crocodile’, ‘Bad Guy’, and even ‘The Isle’, than his later works. This is a dark and gloomy movie with dark and gloomy characters. It might be quite a shocker to those who are only familiar with his more reserved masterpieces ‘Bin-Jip’ and ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring’. There are some scenes in here that really are difficult to watch, in my case a couple of dozen people even left the screening during one specific scene. It’s a ruthless film that does not shy away from violence and cruelty, but this is far from the focus of the film, it all functions in this elegiac tale of redemption and repentance.