Are you my mommy? Cho plays an ambiguous figure.Drafthouse Films

Are you my mommy? Cho plays an ambiguous figure.Drafthouse Films

Pieta Runs Fri., June 14–Thurs., June 20 at Grand Illusion. Not rated.


Runs Fri., June 14–Thurs., June 20 at 
Grand Illusion. Not rated. 104 minutes.

Do not borrow money from this man’s boss. Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is the merciless collector and enforcer for a Seoul loan shark. Their operation and clients are far removed from that city’s glittering high-rise core. Borrowers work in dingy one-man machinery shops fronted by steel shutters. They take orders for small, odd-job manufacturing runs by cell phone, then work all night with lathes and metal-stamping tools. It’s easy enough to lose a finger or hand in the grinding machinery, working past exhaustion to meet deadline. And if they don’t deliver in time, they’re further in debt. That’s when the Kang-do receives his orders by cell phone. That’s when the real mangling begins.

Director Kim Ki-duk (Breath, 3-Iron, Bad Guy) likes to shock his audience—often with the hammer blow of a Big Reveal, as opposed to a literal hammer blow (the signature of his countryman Park Chan-wook). Most of the violence Kang-do doles out is implied, a simple matter of film editing: shot of forearm, shot of whirring drill press, exterior shot of storefront plus the overlaid audio of a bloodcurdling scream. Kang-do’s specialty is brutality, while Kim’s specialty is karmic comeuppance. If Kang-do is a solitary sociopath, incapable of pity, Kim will inflict the torture of sentience upon him: To suffer, first he must feel.

To that end, a mysterious woman (Cho Min-soo) abruptly enters Kang-do’s life. Mi-son claims she’s the mother who gave him up for adoption as a teenager. “Please forgive me!” she wails. Kang-do doesn’t believe her, humiliates her (in a particularly ugly scene), then grudgingly begins to tolerate her, to trust her. It’s as if he’s taken out a loan—and then, in Kim’s tidy moral parallel, he will be made to pay the tenfold interest. Ordinary deadbeats’ debts can be settled with insurance money: Kang-do calmly orders them to step out a window, and if their legs aren’t sufficiently broken by the fall, a few stomps will complete the job. (In a scene that’s both comic and appalling, Mi-son accompanies Kang-do on his rounds, applying her boot heels to the same grim task.)

In art history, a pieta refers to Michelangelo’s, or any artist’s, depiction of Mary cradling her dead son Jesus; and Kim includes a cross or two in the skyline of Seoul. However, his Pieta is a considerably more overwrought parable of sin, guilt, suffering, and sacrifice. It’s elegant in outline, but in execution a soap opera of revenge and oedipal attachment. Michelangelo worked in marble, Kim works in viscera. Pieta gets its shocks and astonished snorts, but it achieves nothing lasting.

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