Directed by: Ki-duk Kim.
Written by: Ki-duk Kim.
Starring: Lee Jung-jin (Lee Kang-do), Jo Min-su (Jang Mi-sun), Kang Eun-jin (Myeong-ja, Hun-cheol's wife), Woo Gi-hong (Hun-cheol), Cho Jae-ryong (Tae-seung), Son Jong-hak (Loan shark boss).
Out of all of the directors working today none mystify me as much as Korea’s Kim Ki-duk. It isn’t that his films are confusing – they are as simpleminded as they come – it’s that somehow he has garnered a great international reputation, and as well as any number of awards. I certainly haven’t seen all of his films (although he helpfully points out in the opening credits of his latest, Pieta, that it is “The 18th Film by Kim Ki-duk”) because quite frankly the handful of his films I have seen have all been insufferable. After Tony Rayn’s infamous takedown piece of Kim in Film Comment way back in 2004, I thought perhaps the critical community had finally started to see his films in the same light I did – as pretentious crap – but apparently, I am mistaken. After winning the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes in 2011 for Arirang (a documentary that he made ABOUT HIMSELF, that has thankfully never been released in North America, so I have managed to avoid it), his latest film Pieta took home the top prize at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. Yes, it was on a technicality as the jury wanted to give the top prize to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, but the rules stated they couldn’t since they already gave it the prizes for Best Actor and Best Director, but still, that implies that Pieta was at worst the second best film at the Festival. This mystifies me as I’m hard pressed to think of a worse film that I have seen in the past year. Pieta, like the director’s other work, wants to shock the audience with its “taboo” busting story line, yet also make us feel sorry for its sociopathic main character. I think the movie is supposed to be some sort of critique about capitalism as well, but simply having characters talk about the evil of money doesn’t really qualify as a critique, does it? Like his other films, I had a tough time getting through Pieta, not because of the film’s “disturbing” content, but because I was bored out of my fucking mind.
The movie stars Lee Jung-jin as Kang-do, a loan shark, who has an interesting way of ensuring he can collect the money owed to him. When he lends someone money, he takes out an insurance policy on them that pays out if they get crippled. When they cannot pay the money, he cripples them, and collects the money. Now, this doesn’t seem like a smart way of doing business for several reasons – the first being all those insurance premiums would certainly eat into your loan sharking profits, and the second being that unless Korean insurance companies are stupid (and I have no knowledge their common business practices), you would think they would start to get suspicious about all the people being crippled and the payouts being made to the same guy, who isn’t related to them. But you see, the crippling is a metaphor – he’s crippling them physically like his loans have crippled them financially. I guess that’s what passes at deep thinking about debt in a Kim Ki-duk movie.
Anyway, I’ve gotten sidetracked on thinking about insurance (although it is more interesting than the rest of the movie). The film, which starts off horribly, goes even farther off the rails when Mi-sun (Jo Min-su) shows up, and claims to be Kang-do’s long lost mother who abandoned him 30 years prior. So Kang-do does the logical thing when someone claiming to be your long lost mother shows up – grabs her by the vagina and yells “You’re telling me I came out of this, so I’m going to go back in”, and proceeds to rape her. I mean, what other choice did he have? But soon, the two are inseparable, and Kang-do is so happy to have his mommy back in his life. He even starts to feel guilty about all the cripplings and wants to turn his life around. I won’t reveal the rest of the plot, but unless you’re as slow as Kang-do, you probably know where the movie is going. It wouldn’t be a Kim Ki-duk movie unless he tried to “shock” you with a twist ending that only people who haven’t seen another movie don’t see coming.
I am at a loss to explain the appeal of Kim’s films – I really am. For the most part, he they all have a sad eyed brute at the center of them – someone who does unspeakable, horrible things, but at the end of the day is really just a misunderstood softie who we are meant to feel sorry for. He wants us to feel for these outcasts and social misfits, and I just cannot do it. How I am supposed to feel sorry for someone like Kang-do, who does absolutely nothing to deserve my sympathy? Extreme, brutal violence is nothing unique in Korean film – hell, it’s practically standard for the Korean films that end up with releases in North America. The difference, I think, is filmmakers like Chan-wook Park (Oldboy) and Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil) aren’t trying to convince us their psychos are really misunderstood and pure, while it’s society at large that is corrupt (which is a Kim Ki-duk standby). What does it say about Kim Ki-duk that he identifies more strongly with the psychos than their victims? And what does it say about the people who like the films. I don’t know, but it’s nothing good.