By far the most difficult narrative film I saw this year at TIFF was Pieta, a dark, relentlessly brutal film about the mother-love and sacrifice, by South Korean master filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk. The film won the Golden Lion in Venice, much to the chagrin of many critics and, presumably, the jury, which reportedly wanted to award the fest’s top prize to The Master, which won awards for best director and best actor (shared by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix) but was prohibited from doing so by an archaic rule that prohibits the film lauded with the Golden Lion from receiving any other awards.
Much of the first half of the film is so disturbing as to be almost unwatchable, at least by Western audiences – even those who love arthouse cinema and therefore have a higher tolerance than your average film-goer for brutality taken to its most absurd extremes. But if you can tough it out past the pinnacle of debasement and suffering at the midpoint or so of the film, where it’s at its absolute worst, the film gradually heads from that point to a payoff that does make it worthwhile to stick around for. Redemption? Not necessarily that, exactly, but something, at least, approaching understanding and acceptance of all that you’ve just seen.
The story is set in a gloomy industrial South Korean slum, where cramped machinist shops perch amid filth, poverty, and utmost despair, and if it didn’t have some ultimate redeeming value and an actual point to its plot structure that takes us through all its blood and muck and mire with deliberate intent, this could almost be considered poverty porn, so thoroughly does it glory in the miserable lives of its subjects, poor machinists so desperate to survive that they take out loans from a loan shark to keep their heads above water.
The loan shark’s enforcer, Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), has blankness to him, an emptiness of light and life – a lack of soul, if you will – that’s mesmerizing to watch even as it disturbs and repulses. Kang-do’s method of enforcing the payback of loans is simple: He forces these desperate wretches to sign insurance policies payable to his boss, and when they are unable to pay debts that multiply tenfold with exorbitant interest, he coldly destroys an arm, or a leg, or casually tosses the debtor off a building, crippling him forever. In what there is of his personal life, Kang-do is hardly any better. As he walks into his small, dingy apartment, he stabs his knife into a picture of a woman hanging on the wall; the bloody entrails of the animals he consumes to feed his body strewn and smeared all over the tile floor, evoking his butchering of human beings in his work. In every respect, the filmmaker establishes that this is a man who has lost all sense of decency and humanity, if he ever had them to begin with.
And then a woman (Cho Min-soo, in a riveting, astonishing performance) shows up on his doorstep, claiming to be his long lost mother, and thus we get the first piece in the puzzle that is Kang-do: abandoned, alone, perhaps brutalized himself in ways we are not given to know, whatever humanity he was born into this world with, life has long since drained almost every drop of it from his soul. Kang-do at first rejects the sudden appearance of his mother, brutalizing and debasing her over and over again, in ways that will make you shudder and turn from the screen, but no matter what he does to her, she takes it with a calm and patient suffering, a sense of being given a just punishment for whatever her imagined sins may be. Slowly, he comes to accept her, and then to love and become dependent upon her – and that is when the film takes a sharp turn to its unexpected and riveting concluding act.
The film’s title, evoking the patient suffering of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of her son, reveals what Pieta is on one level; but the anti-capitalist thematic element threading through the film, with money frequently referred to as the work of the Devil, and Kang-do as the devil’s tempter, allows it to function also as allegory for a system in which how much money you have controls how you live, your place within the social strata, and what the life of a mother’s son is worth within that corrupt and dehumanizing system.
As such, Pieta makes a bold and worthy, if challenging statement about our capacity for cruelty and greed. From the comfort and safety of our complacent lives where such things happen only in movies, we can only sit, mouths agape, unable to accept that such terrible things actually happen, probably every day. How do people live like that? And yet, they surely do, in countless numbers, sacrificing their limbs, their organs, their children, their very humanity, in order to survive the most brutal and inhumane definitions of existence. It’s terrible to watch, honestly, and makes you question who and what we humans are, exactly, that there exist people who can coldly execute orders that destroy lives in the name of transactions that are, at their basest level, an invention of man to define an artificial structure of power in which humanity is hardly in the equation.
The violence in this film is just brutal, even though the worst of it happens off-frame, but it’s not gratuitous; within the structure and context of the film, everything that happens is absolutely relevant both in building the thematic elements of the film as a whole, and in establishing a frame of reference for all that happens. This isn’t a pretty film to watch in the aesthetic sense of the word, either. It’s shot to evoke the dismal, gray despair of the lives of its players, and in that its very ugliness becomes a character as well. A hopeful and uplifting cinematic experience this certainly is not, but as a dual exploration of the both the inhumanity of human beings, and the deeper humanity that allows for terrible sacrifice in the name of love and loss, Pieta is undeniably effective.