Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk wastes little time establishing that Gang-do (Lee Jeong-jin) won't be pleasant company. We discover the protagonist of Kim's gritty, moody drama Pieta grunting his way through intimate relations with his pillow, falling asleep, then waking up and wandering to a bathroom covered in entrails left over from last night's fish dinner, which he brushes away with his foot before going about his business.
Kim films each moment unblinkingly, lingering as if daring viewers to look away, but it's just a prelude for the unpleasantness to come when Kim turns the focus to Gang-do's occupation. A low-level enforcer, he collects loan payments from the struggling employees of a failing urban industrial district — men whose work with heavy machinery allows him to arrange when necessary for limb-mangling, mobility-destroying accidents whose benefits he then collects as payment.
Cherubic of cheek but ghoulish of pallor, Gang-do is anything but a nice guy, and in the film's early scenes, Lee plays him as a man without even a hint of a heart, hurting others but living in a place beyond caring about or maybe even understanding their pain.
That starts to change, however slowly, with the arrival of a middle-aged woman (Jo Min-su) who announces herself as the mother who abandoned him as an infant. As if attempting to make up for lost time, she starts to clean his apartment, prepare his food, even help him with his job, wearing a beatific expression even as he tries to force her away.
She won't be dismissed, however — not even after he makes her submit to grotesque humiliations, including sexual assault, in the attempt to make her disavow her claim to parenthood. Her potential for self-sacrifice seems to be as bottomless as his ability to heap abuse on her.
Kim is no stranger to shocking images — his 2000 feature, The Isle, ensured that viewers would never look at fishhooks the same way — but the director has deeper concerns than revolting his audience. The 2003 film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring offers a concise and elegant distillation of Buddhist principles. And as its title suggests, Pieta has Christian themes in mind.
The film takes a long road to spirituality, though, with plenty of stops for violence and perversion along the way. Like Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, this story is determined to put core Christian principles to the harshest tests imaginable. What does it mean for God's forgiveness to extend to everyone? Can a just God really forgive every sin Gang-do commits — sins that seem to get worse with each scene, and which go unpunished amid a grim temporal landscape of unchecked decay?
Then Pieta, which won the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival, gets even more complicated. The woman's seemingly boundless compassion for Gang-do, however unearned, starts to rub off, inhibiting his ability to do his job as his capacity for sympathy starts to flower. He's changed by her kindness toward him, even if her seeming goodness is not what it first appears.
Which raises another question relevant to modern Christianity: What does it mean to practice virtue in the service of a faith that can never be verified — one that might even be misplaced?
Kim offers no easy answers, and never backs away from the toughness of the questions, in a film that's ugly in both its material and its presentation. Apart from a few shots of nature breaking through on the edges of the city, Pieta stays deep in the squalor of its setting, often using a handheld approach that makes escape feel impossible.
It's tough but rewarding viewing, highlighted by Jo's enigmatic performance; she suggests there may be divine motivations behind her character's professed reasons for helping Gang-do, then never quite abandons that suggestion even after Pieta reveals the true source of what drives her. That's fitting for a film that, even amid the muck and blood, holds out the possibility of finding some hard-won hope. (Recommended)