Skip to main content
film review

Lee Jung-jin and Cho Min-soo in Pieta.

No contemporary director is more talented or more infuriating than South Korea's Kim Ki-duk. He's a master stylist whose frames balance on the knife-edge of polar opposites: kinetic and ultraviolent one moment, static and contemplative the next. But if his style is consistently mesmerizing, the content is a different kettle of kimchi. It's erratic and uneven, compelling and not, careering from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again, often in the same film. Pieta, his latest, won the top prize at last year's Venice festival, perhaps for keeping its director's reputation so firmly intact. Yes, this too is fascinating and frustrating.

Although the title points to loftier Christian overtones, we begin in an inner circle of hell – an industrial slum in Seoul, to be precise, where poverty abounds and, thus, money rules. There, Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) doesn't worship Mammon so much as act as its brutal enforcer. He's the most sadistic of debt collectors, taking a dead-eyed pride in maiming and crippling those who don't pay, then cashing in their insurance claims – big bucks for a severed hand, more for a broken spine. When not so employed, the guy retreats to the solitude of his cramped apartment, content to satisfy himself on his narrow futon. Unfeeling, unrepentant, he is a man alone.

At least until mother Mary comes to him. A middle-aged woman knocks on his door, endures his rough dismissals, and then announces: "I'm sorry I abandoned you. Please forgive me." Mi-sun (Cho Min-soo) claims to be the mother he never knew, bearing a love he never felt, a claim that Kang-do treats with escalating rounds of brutality – a slap, a push, a sexual assault – all with the purpose of persuading this stranger to deny her maternity. "I've got no one," he shouts, clinging to the vacuum that frees him to be amoral.

Here and throughout, Kim's trademark style works to perfection. Most of the bloodiest violence occurs off-camera, but his shots are so composed, so fraught with a menacing stillness, that our imagination runs riot. It's more devastating than actually having to see the gore. Thematically, by contrast, there's little to imagine – we soon know precisely where the story is heading. Kang-do begins to warm to Mi-sun, as the transcendent love of a mother weaves its magic on the son. And soon he can't do his job. The sinner can no longer sin; the dictates of money, of unfettered capitalism, go unenforced.

Point taken, but this is when things bog down, getting both repetitive and cluttered: Kang-do's victims start clamouring for revenge; his boss pops up for no useful reason; Mi-sun disappears, then reappears; she bakes a birthday cake, knits a sweater; he blows out the candles, plants a tree. And we deal with the erratic downside of a typical Kim film – the frustration sets in.

But the fascination returns at the stirring climax, when the plot neatly twists and the film's apparently simple message turns deeper, and blacker. To now, Cho has wonderfully played the mother, and the director has carefully shot her, as a beleaguered yet nonetheless resilient Madonna full of grace. But now she proves herself to be something else entirely, and the central idea of love's altering power gets complicated – it can change the giver no less than the recipient. And powerful changes come with a powerful price, paid in the devastating final frames, when a pretty sentiment meets its own cruel end: Love is all you need, except when it isn't.

Interact with The Globe