It is odd to think about the few very small, very brief moments in a film like Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà that really end up defining it as a whole. Odd because the film is brutal, unrelenting and tough to watch for a vast majority of its runtime. There are a myriad of violent scenes that could stand out, unsettling psychosexual situations between mother and child that resonate or any number of other minor character moments that could define it or help a viewer to understand it.
But for me, there were two moments that made the film such a gut-punch to work through well after viewing. In the interest of not spoiling things, I’ll only say that the two moments involve the decisions we make in the situations we’re faced with and what they say about us or what we’ve done or want to do. While this might be annoyingly vague, both of these moments occur toward the end of the film and involve death and land on you like a damned sledgehammer. That is all I’ll say but as I’ve gained some clarity (and had time to think about it) I really boil it down to the two moments I’ve (kind-of) mentioned.
Look, I’m not trying to be cute or clever here. The film gives you one scene after another that challenge your humanity in sometimes simple and sometimes vastly complex ways. The film doesn’t have to come down to the two things I mentioned above, but taken as a whole, the vast wash of blood and revenge and sickness and longing throughout can be drawn down to those final two acts. It is bracing and amazing and no small feat.
No small feat because, as I mentioned, the film is a lot of work to get through. It is murky to look at and disturbing on both the visual and mental levels which combine to really challenge the viewer to stay locked in. In a much more beautiful and cinematic way, I Saw The Devil was like that. Forcing you to stay dialed in but all the while making that act really hard to do. Pietà doesn’t have the wide cinematic flourishes I Saw The Devil had and instead employs a workmanlike approach that has no time for grace or beauty. That is not to say there aren’t some excellent shots and very well composed ideas. Far from it. What I’m saying is that you aren’t going to see the wide beauty of the spaces so much are you’re going to spend most of your time in the grime and ugliness of their underbellies.
The story follows Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) who serves as a collector for a loan shark-type operation. He carries out collections in a pedestrian, almost bored kind of way. His demeanor is chilling, however, because he employs seriously screwed up violent tactics to secure the repayment of the loans. The lion’s share of the debtors are small shop owners and machine workers so he has, at his disposal, an ugly display of tools. What makes this even worse is that the injuries inflicted on his ‘prey’ are made to seem like accidents so the debtors can file insurance claims which would, in-turn, pay off the debt. It is a smart and all together sick type of arrangement that made me a little queasy on more than one occasion.
Once we’ve gotten familiar (or at least desensitized somewhat) to his day-to-day life, it is thrown into upheaval when he is confronted by an older woman who claims to be his mother who abandoned him as a young child. This begins a seriously screwed up cat-and-mouse game between the two which plays not only with gender roles and parent roles but challenges us to what we believe for ourselves and what we believe might be happening with these two. Initially he is very skeptical but grows to slowly understand and accept this woman which sets about a chain of events that link the very start of the film to the very end. It is in this relationship that we see the true depth of pain and loss defined not only in ways we see but in ways we absolutely cannot.
I feel it is important at this point to say that there is a fuller, more complex, much darker part to this segment of the film that I won’t get into here. The conclusions you draw from the middle part of the film are, I think, very personal and very intimate. You may not relate to either character’s behavior but you sure as hell will compare it back to yourself and whatever positive or negative things you have in your past and in your upbringing. I feel this was an intentional choice on the part of the filmmaker to take events or ideas that may of us are familiar with and strip them of that familiarity to create something new. This isn’t done in a gimmick way (things like preparing dinner, seeing a street performer etc) and instead forces the viewer to really process all that is happening on the filmmaker’s terms, not the viewers.
I will not go further into the latter part of the film as that would be, in a word, criminal. What I can say in closing, though, is that the film as whole is intense and harrowing and dark and challenging and is a masterful piece of South Korean cinema worthy of all the awards and praise it has received. This is not an easy film by any definition but worth experiencing and very worth thinking about well after the fact.