J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Kim Ki-duk’s Peita

Evidently, times are tough for Korean mom-and-pop machine shops and hardware stores.  Turning to a predatory lender only makes things worse.  It is Lee Kang-do’s job to collect, which he does in the worst manner possible.  It is soulless work, but it suits him.  However, there will be a reckoning in Kim Ki-duk’s Golden Lion Award winning Pieta (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Lee’s boss plasters the depressed Cheonggyecheon neighborhood with flyers for his loan service, but he never mentions the four figure interest rate.  When borrowers inevitably fall behind on payments, they are forced to take out insurance naming his dodgy company as their beneficiary.  Shortly thereafter, Lee arrives.  He maims instead of killing.  It is easier to collect that way.  In proper loan shark fashion, he has left a long string of broken bodies in his wake.

Not exactly a people person, Lee is rather annoyed when a middle-aged woman starts following him.  He is even less impressed when she claims to be his long lost mother seeking to make amends for abandoning him during his early childhood.  Initially, he wants nothing to do with Mi-sun.  Yet he slowly gets used to the idea of finally having a mother.  Then things really start to get dark and twisted.

Seriously, it is hard to figure why Drafthouse is releasing Pieta the weekend after Mothers’ Day.  Who wouldn’t want to take Mom to bleakly naturalistic, sexually charged religious allegory?  Like classical tragedy, it tackles some heavy themes, such as maternal love, redemption, and retribution, which Kim quietly and methodically strips them down to their stone cold essences.  As a result, Pieta’s payoff is so bracing, it stings, even if viewers anticipate the shoe that drops.

As Mother Mi-sun, Cho Min-soo is pretty extraordinary.  It is a harrowing and fearsome performance, but also an acutely human portrayal.  Yet, in many ways, Lee Jung-jin has the harder challenge, finding pathos and vulnerability in a hardened monster like Lee Kang-do.  Nearly a two-hander, their scenes together are genuinely riveting and often profoundly disturbing.

Pieta is a deeply moral film that treats the acts of love and sacrifice with deadly seriousness, suggesting both have intrinsic value.  Yet, it would be a mistake to describe it as an optimistic film.  Regardless, it is the work of a legitimate auteur with a very personal point of view.  Kim directly transports the audience to the dingy back alleys of Cheonggyecheon, creating an overwhelming vibe of spiritual and economic hopelessness.  A challenging fable featuring brave and haunting performances from his co-leads, Pieta is recommended for those who do not consider cinema a form of entertainment but rather a matter of life and death.  It opens this Friday (5/17) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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