‘Pieta’: Searing revenge story

May 16, 2013

South Korean cinema has exploded internationally in the past decade or so. I won’t speculate about how South Korean society informs the consciousness of its filmmakers because, well, we probably only see a fraction of the output. It would be like basing your opinions of American culture on the “Real Housewives” shows. Well, OK, bad example.

Anyway, Kim Ki-Duk’s “Pieta,” opening in limited release tomorrow (5/17/13), is as twisted and unexpected as much of the Korean cinema that has reached this shore. With its dazzlingly cynical story and intensely squalid setting, it’s a trip to the dark side – indeed, the darkest side.

Lee Jeong-jin plays Gang-Do, a loan shark’s debt collector who seems to prey on the most unfortunate of fringe workers in an industrial area of Seoul. He works as enforcer for a money man, who makes the loans under one condition: The borrower sign a disability-insurance policy, with the loan shark as beneficiary. Then, if the debtor fails to make a payment, Gang-Do comes and cripples them, collecting the insurance to settle the loan.

It’s a cruel and ruthless business but Gang-Do, an orphan who obviously has lived a brutal life, seemingly has no conscience. Or any sort of feelings at all – at least until a woman, Mi-Son (Jo Min-soo) shows up on his doorstep claiming to be his mother. She’s a sorrowful sort, chagrined at the embarrassment of an unwanted pregnancy, contrite about giving up the baby, eager to reestablish a relationship with Gang-Do.

Gang-Do, however, is unconvinced. Given his profession, he has an innate suspicion and seems positive that this is a scam of some sort. He puts her to the test – to an extreme test, to be sure – to get her to break character. When she doesn’t, he begins to soften, to believe that, in fact, he has found the mother he never knew.

In fact, it is a scam – but not one you would figure out. Instead, Kim casually reveals Mi-Son’s true intent only at the film’s devastating conclusion.

The film itself is bleakly insinuating, taking the viewer on a tour of urban decay that is startlingly stark. The blasted landscape of this film looks like some post-apocalyptic future, when Kim is merely shooting some of Seoul’s bleaker industrial neighborhoods.

Lee is an actor playing a remote character but there’s nothing remote about how he experiences this. Jo, by contrast, is a heart-on-sleeve actress playing a sorrowfully contrite mother, with a hidden agenda. She is alternately transparent and opaque in fascinating ways.

“Pieta” is disturbing stuff, a revenge drama that rarely pulls its punches, graphic without going to the violent extremes of some Korean films. It will haunt you.

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