Korea (2012) Kim Ki-Duk

In the struggling mercantile area of Cheonggyecheon, Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is relentless and remorseless debt collector for a loan shark, happy to mete out unflinching levels of punishment on his non-paying clients. Out of the blue a forty-something woman, Jang Mi-sun (Jo Min-su), turns up at Kang-do’s home claiming to be his mother, having abandoned him as a baby, blaming herself for his violent behaviour.

Kim Ki-Duk is not just one of the most unique voices in Korean cinema but in cinema in general, his influence on his native land’s output quite palpable. Much like Japanese auteur Takashi Miike, Kim is a director whose films you have to approach with an “expect the unexpected” attitude such is the variety of themes and content of his work. If he is not delivering morally twisted, violence heavy assaults on the viewer (Bad Guy, The Isle) then Kim is charming us with visual poetry (3 Iron) or serene meditations (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring). After the introspective self documentary Arirang Kim returns to his favourite subject of revenge, redemption and moral ambiguity with Pieta, the Golden Lion winner at this year’s Venice International Film Festival.

Kang-do is an emotionless thug who lets his fists talk louder than his words. In true debt collector form he doles out his violent penalties to the impoverished clients of his boss (Son Jong-hak) with nary a sign of concern or compassion on his face, crippling them so they can use the insurance money to settle their debts; he doesn’t even relent if their upset wives or mothers are present. Mi-sun’s sudden arrival is a nuisance to Kang-do, treating her to the same physical aggression normally reserved for his victims.

Then again, when a stranger suddenly walks into your home without a word and start to do the washing up, you’d probably throw them out too. Mi-sun however is rather tenacious, following her son around despite verbal and physical objections, witnessing him “at work”, obviously not too pleased with what she sees. Eventually Mi-sun reveals herself to Kang-do and naturally he refuses to believe her, having grown up alone but still she insists.

The queasy method Kang-do suggests Mi-sun proves herself could only come from Kim Ki-Duk, as could Kang-do forcing himself onto his own mother, such is his resolute refusal to accept her claims. As uncomfortable as this scene is, it proves to be a pivotal one as Kang-do is forced to relent when Mi-sun breaks down and slowly begins to accept that maybe he has found his mother after all.

The mood temporarily lightens a little as Kim allows some black humour to filter through into the proceedings documenting mother and son making up for lost time in getting to know each other a little better. Little in the way of information seems to be exchanged but a bond, or more accurately a reliance on each other, gradually forms. I won’t say anymore except the words “happily ever after” do not apply here – but you probably knew that already.

Complex characters and equally complex paths for them to walk down have been intrinsic to Kim Ki-Duk’s storytelling and Pieta is no different. The violence is surprisingly toned down with the majority of it taking place off screen, but moral boundaries are still tested and often crossed; the suggestion of an Oedipal direction for the mother and son relationship is one of the more unsettling yet oddly compelling scenes in the film.

Repeatedly called a “devil” for his ruthless brutality towards his victims, Kang-do turns the tables, suggesting people who borrow money they have no intention of paying back are the corrupt ones! Unlike previous films, there is more a direct message being sent in Pieta, but the telling remains as confrontational and esoteric as ever. We are thrown a few nice curveballs along the way and a choice of direction for the emotional finale which is topped off by a very memorable and haunting closing moment.

Aside from our two emotionally flawed leads, the supporting cast are a curious bunch too. Kang-do’s first victim Hun-cheol (Woo Gi-hong) is so scared of what Kang-do will do to him that it arouses him, grabbing a last minute bonk with his long suffering wife Myeong-ja (Kang Eun-jin). Another young chap (Kwon Se-in) is actually willing to be crippled since the insurance money will mean a better life for his soon-to be born baby – earning him a respite from Kang-do for showing that sort of unconditional love for his future child he himself never experienced.

But the film is about the two leads and Kim couldn’t have picked two more suitable actors to fulfil those roles. Jo Min-su’s essaying of this mysterious Mi-sun is pitch perfect, suffused with nuanced touches of pathos and emotional suffering and acute awareness of not revealing more of her character than is necessary for that moment.

Lee Jung-jin has to take Kang-do on a more subtle journey and he does so marvellously, deconstructing the stoic, stone faced thug we meet at the start of the film before our very eyes to the sobbing, wreck of a mummy’s boy. If there is a flaw with the film it is in how sudden Kang-do accepts and embraces Mi-Sun as his mother and as the centre of his life is a little too sudden, but thankfully not the immediate one eighty degree turn a more impatient director would have settled for.

Pieta is a curious film in that it is prime Kim Ki-Duk and a return to form for the master of exploring the darker side of the human psyche, yet even with the shocking content it is arguably his most accessible work to date, showing possible signs of him mellowing at this stage of his career. Or maybe cinema has caught up with Kim Ki-Duk? Either way fans of Kim and his bold, visceral, morally challenging style of filmmaking should rejoice that he has his mojo back and in a big way.