Straight away we are introduced to Kang-do, who works as a high-interest debt collector, visiting machinery workers in a run-down industrial area of Seoul to dispatch his brutal and remorseless business practices. His methods of ‘debt collection’ usually involve crippling his victims to gain their insurance money, often employing the same machinery they use to earn their living for the task. He is totally unaffected by pleas for mercy, from the men or their relatives, and sexually humiliates the wife of one. He is an emotionless force of violence who has gained such a reputation among the workers that they all seem to greatly fear him and compare him to the devil.
While carrying out a task in typically cruel fashion, a mysterious middle aged woman appears to be following him. She seems unfazed by his bloodthirsty actions, and even joins in kicking a helpless victim after he yells insults at Kang-do. Kang-do of course, wants nothing to do with her, rudely telling her to leave him, but she continues to follow him, bringing food to his house. Eventually she admits that she is the mother who abandoned him as a newborn. After submitting her to hideous acts of humiliation, Kang-do begins to accept the woman as his mother. This begins to affect his life in profoundly, and he begins to realise that his choices have left him with numerous enemies.
‘Pieta’ possesses many of Kim Ki-Duk’s hallmarks, such as a minimal number of characters, and stark, realistic violence, shot in a skilful but not showy manner. One of the things he has become well known for is the lack of dialogue between leads, requiring his actors to covey various emotions without the aid of speech. Here he adopts a different spin on this trait, as Kang-do does not say anything non-business related at the start, but as his situation changes he speaks more and more, such as in a memorable debt collection after his mother’s arrival, when his victim’s willingness to be crippled to secure money for his unborn child has an unprecedented effect on him.
‘Pieta’s first half, with its numerous unpleasant scenes, is by no means an easy watch, but remains gripping. In its second half, it flows in a slightly different direction, ultimately offering us a fresh spin on a familiar subgenre, and as the plot twists the true nature of its characters are revealed. It packs a real emotional punch come its haunting conclusion, and genuinely has new things to say on themes of guilt and revenge.
’Pieta’ may not be Kim Ki-Duk’s best film, but is a very strong addition to his increasingly impressive oeuvre, whose international recognition will hopefully gain him more attention .