One of the more recent efforts from South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk is 2012's Pieta and, like most of his work, it's an often times unpleasant and confrontational picture. With that said, again like most of his work, it's also a captivating and gripping experience, a tale told through his unique cinematic voice and in his own beautifully grim style. And while in many ways this is a more accessible film than many of those he's known for, it's still very much a Kim Ki-duk and therefore not for the faint of heart.
The story introduces us to a man named Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) who makes his living as an enforcer working for a loan shark based out of Seoul. When his boss' borrowers don't pay up on time, Kang-do shows up and breaks their various limbs so that they can get their hands on some insurance money and pay him back. Given that the neighborhood that Kang-do operates out of is inhabited mostly by small industrial businesses, there's no shortage of shop owners borrowing from his boss and as such, he keeps fairly busy. Kang-do is good at his job. When he's not at home masturbating or killing animals he then eats for dinner, he's using the shop owners' own tools to mutilate them.
His grim and unpleasant life changes when he meets a woman named Mi-sun (Cho Min-soo) who basically shows up out of nowhere claiming to be the mother who left him all those years ago. Kang-do isn't having any of this, at least not at first, and he lets her know that. He's abusive towards her in more ways than one, as he is to almost everyone he meets, He pushes back but she is insistent. Eventually his walls start to come down and he lets her in. As he does, he starts to change and he not only starts to warm to her but becomes fiercely protective of her. Mi-sun is not without a past of her own, however, and as Kang-do tries to clean up his act, they both learn the hard way that they'll have to face some fairly horrible consequences.
As much a tale of one man's search for redemption as much as it is a gritty tale of a fairly psychopathic thug, Pieta (which is, according to Webster's Dictionary, "a representation of the Virgin Mary mourning over the dead body of Christ") just as well made as it is dark and intense. Though the movie is startlingly violent and cruel, much of that side of the content is left to the viewer's imagination and takes place off camera; though we still certainly see enough to know what's going on and how. This keeps the picture from becoming exploitative but still allows it to maintain its edge and the fact that it's actually very beautifully shot and set to a remarkably appropriate and moving score ups the ante in that regard as well, making for a film of interesting contrasts.
What makes most of this work more than anything else, however, is how Kong-do's character is crafted. We know he was the product of a horrible childhood and that he grew up without his mother so it makes sense that Mi-sun would be able to get him to let down his guard the way that he does and it makes sense that once he does, he'd see the error of his ways and try to reform. Lee Jung-jin plays the role well, his character is initially without mercy, a master of cruelty who would seem to be using his ‘job' as a way of expressing his anger at the world around him. He's great in the part, he's angry and bitter and spiteful and yet we still want to see what happens to him and how his story will end. We see him transform from a man without compassion or feeling into someone willing to lay his life down for the woman who left him alone. How he comes to terms with literally experiencing these emotions for the first time is fascinating to watch, even if we know through some clever imagery and foreshadowing laid out in the movie that this will not end with anything even remotely resembling a traditional happy ending.
There are some flaws here. As the movie unfolds it doesn't take a genius to figure out where it's going and because the movie does telegraph its intent, some of the suspense that would otherwise hook us evaporates. Additionally, there are few times in the last half hour or so where Kong-do's actions begin to defy logic. Though on the flipside of this coin is that fact that emotions often do just that and if he's not completely sure how to deal with what he's feeling, maybe he would do what he does the way he does it, logic be damned. There's a pretty big shift in tone and feel as Kim Ki-duk wraps things up, and this will undoubtedly make some viewers rethink what is, up to that point, an exercise in grim realism. This results in a film that isn't the director's best, but it is nevertheless a strong effort, one that manages to be simultaneously sickening and beautiful and which will, if nothing else, make you think.
Pieta is presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition in 1.85.1 and generally speaking the transfer looks very nice. The movie was shot on digital video so there are no issues with print damage or grain, obviously, but the image is clean and free of any video noise. There are some minor compression artifacts in a couple of the darker scenes but otherwise the movie looks good. Color reproduction is solid and natural looking, though keep in mind that this isn't the most colorful film you'll ever see, while black levels are nice and deep. Skin tones look natural, there isn't any obvious edge enhancement or aliasing of note, and all in all, the movie translates to Blu-ray quite nicely.
Korean language options are provided in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound with forced subtitles offered up in English only. For a movie that is almost made up of either dialogue scenes or long stretches of silence, Pieta sounds surprisingly good. While this isn't an aggressive or particularly enveloping mix, it's very true to the source. Dialogue is crisp and clear and when music is used, it too sounds very good. Levels are properly balanced and as you'd expect for a recent film like this, there are no issues with any hiss or distortion. Rear channel activity isn't a constant nor does the movie need it to be, but ambient noise can be picked up on here and there to help build some atmosphere. No complaints here at all.
The main extra on the disc is the audio commentary with director Kim Ki-duk and actors Cho Min-soo and Lee Jung-jin that is presented in Korean with English subtitles (when the commentary is on, the subtitles for the movie itself disappear). This is a pretty interesting track with the director doing most of the talking here, explaining why he takes on the film subjects that he takes on and discussing some of the themes and ideas as they relate to the characters in the movie. It's an informative talk and a nice addition to the disc as those of us who don't speak Korean rarely get the chance to hear him go into the kind of detail that he does here. If it doesn't move a mile a minute and bombard you with facts and jokes, well, that wouldn't suit the movie. It's a reasonably serious talk but given the type of movie that has been made here, that only seems appropriate.
From there, we get a featurette called God, Have Mercy On Us which is a thirteen minute collection of interviews with Kim Ki-duk, Cho Min-soo and Lee Jung-jin conducted after Pieta took home The Golden Lion award at the 69th Venice Film Festival. Also included here is a five and a half minute Behind The Scenes segment. Rounding out the extras on the disc are a director filmography, a trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection. Inside the case is a full color sixteen page insert booklet and a download code for a digital copy of the movie.
Pieta isn't perfect but it's a challenging and beautifully made work of remarkably bleak visual poetry. The central performances are excellent and on a technical level the film is a marvel. This won't be a picture that connects with the mainstream, but for those who appreciate the director's style and his take on the dark side of life, it's absolutely worth seeing. It's slightly more accessible than some of his other pictures and so it might help to mainstream his filmography a bit, but at the same time it retains the darkness that has become his trademark. Drafthouse Films give the film a very respectable domestic release, offering it up in very nice shape and with some good extras as well. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.