Kim Ki-duk’s 18th feature, Pieta, takes its name from the moment that Mary cradled the body of the Jesus’ dead body, and in particular art that depicts such a moment. Watching Kim’s feature, one would think that he took the name solely to provide some kind of spiritual meaning to his film, as it contains no intimations of religion or spirituality and serves more to disturb than to do anything else.
The film can be firmly divided into three acts. The first follows a debt-collector named Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), who specializes in turning clients into cripples in order to make off with the insurance claim. Our vision of Lee is gratuitous and stereotypical; some form of raw meat goes unnoticed on his bathroom floor and he stabs at the breasts of a painting of a woman every time he walks by his table. He is utterly unsympathetic. The world that Kim creates is claustrophobic and, less intentionally, approaching an unbelievable dystopian post-industrialism. City streets are quiet, and the few people around all do simple machine work that Lee utilizes to cripple them.
Overlong and disturbing (albeit not graphic), the first act transitions to a more interesting story of Lee coming to terms with his estranged mother walking into his life, and although Pieta begins to find its footing here, the graphic trials that the mother is put through are outrageously overdone, convincing us not of Lee’s utter ruthlessness but instead of Kim’s unapologetic vulgarism. The film recovers, and the relationship between the two, alternately manipulative and loving on both ends, is the film’s saving grace. Their increasingly raw behavior eventually leads to a semblance of redemption (act three), but then the film drags on far too long, making too fine a point out of a clear theme. The inescapability of guilt, and the parallel between its figuratively crippling effects compared to the literally crippled clients is a ripe idea for a movie, but Pieta comes around to it too late and makes an ongoing, surface-level spectacle out of it for 15 minutes longer than it needs to. As a result, the provocative ending fails to hit home, and all of the transgressive melodrama that (in theory at least) makes up the film’s backbone sounds hollowly over the final images.
The entire film is shot in quick takes with a still camera, aiding a claustrophobic feel but also, because of the film’s repetitive tendency to shock, giving it the syntax of a student-horror film, able to suggest gore but not show it, occasionally making the scene all the more disturbing because of it. Kim never allows enough breathing room to capture any interesting images, so the aesthetic is uninteresting even when it is effective. Like the story, it’s an ardent attempt to say something bogged down by so much redundancy and excess that it’s hard to decide if anything is said at all. There certainly isn’t a deep spiritual message that the title promises, and when Pieta comes to a close, it’s far more likely to find yourself breathing a sigh of relief than returning from any transcendent space.