Kim Ki-Duk has been pulling a viscera-strewn vision of life from the slaughterhouse floor of the human condition for years. Sitting atop a mountain constructed from animal cruelty and nihilistic violence, his films over the past decade-plus articulate the moral and spiritual failings of our species via narratives spawned from an unholy marriage somewhere between Schopenhauer and Sade. Electrocute a fish with a car battery? We’re helpless at the feet of capricious gods. Fierce rape prying at the stuff of Noé? We all acquiesce to greater external force. A platitude has accompanied nearly all the shock-and-awe tactics in his films, like a sycophant PR rep tidying up after a pederast senator. In his past films, Kim managed to jar you with his imagery, but he failed to stain the memory with a compelling story or a lingering moral. It’s taken a lengthy career to do so, but the director has finally realized his potential and birthed a haunting, eerily unshakable meditation on violence, philos, and redemption: Pieta.
The title is taken from the Italian term describing a depiction of the Virgin Mary weeping over the dead body of Christ, but Kim Ki-Duk skins the concept alive and places it back together in his own image. Pieta revolves around the life of brutal debt collector Gang-Do (Lee Jeong-jin). His presence is similar to other Kim narrative leads: solitary, brooding, and quiet. Gang-Do, however, may be the most violent character in Kim’s cache: his job is solely comprised of crippling loan borrowers in order to collect on their insurance policies, and he silently relishes in the act. Lee’s performance is impressive in its restraint: he’s expressionless, emotionless, with only a glimmer of hate flashing over his face when he’s maiming a man’s arm in machinery. The conflict (literally) places its hand in the door frame and refuses to leave when Mi-Son (Min-soo Jo) — a little heavy-handed in the name — approaches Gang Do and declares that she is his mother who abandoned him thirty years ago. As the film plays on, the audience sees that mothers have the largest stake in Gang-Do’s trade.
The relationship between Gang-Do and Mi-Son acts as the caustic lynch pin to this lurching, ominous narrative. Some of the most affecting moments in Pieta flicker in the fixed close-frame glimmers of possible son and suffering mother in Gang-Do’s apartment. The sense of a wolf in his den appropriating a foreign body hangs like dead meat in the air, and this feral parallel swims from scene to scene: Kim’s trademark animal butchering as Gang-Do slaughters a chicken on the floor of his bathroom, Mi-Son watching at a distance as her progeny sends a hapless business owner sailing off a third-story construction site, banking on a broken leg. There was more than one point in Pieta when I perceived Mi-Son as a vision of mercy rising out the mangled limbs and severed lives of Gang-Do’s past.
About an hour into the film is when Kim diverges from his quotidian storytelling via violence and a forced sense of mystery into ambiguous moral waters (for this director, at least): pity and redemption. Gang-Do is softened by Mi-Son and her doting, finally prying away the clapboard holing up his past and comprehending the extent of his existence: an animal. What happens after this self-discovery is a wrenching forty minutes examining the elastic lengths of human nature and how low our moral compass can plummet or how lofty it can ascend. Naturally, the story is more involved and conflicted than some wide-eyed platitude on our better angels, and Kin’s storytelling in Pieta proved to me he’s more than just a Korean von Trier. With this narrative, he’s placed himself in arms alongside the likes of Haneke or even Clouzot at his best stride.
The infinite miasma of the human condition proffers both monsters and knights, writhing and struggling against one another in the confines of every human rib cage. Kim Ki-Duk has accepted them all as his children in Pieta. He invites us, for an hour and forty minutes, to watch and understand that we are all subject to these creatures. To Kim, the divide between saints and demons lies in our willingness to forgive their atrocities.