The first striking thing about Pietà is Jo Min-su’s blank, still face as it stares unblinkingly through a barely open door. This might not seem strange, until I tell you that her appearance is preceded by a chillingly blue rusted hook, Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) dazedly humping a pillow, and his momentarily gleeful expression as he first whips a woman with her own bra, then cripples her husband mercilessly. Something about South Korean cinema in the past decade or so has made the kind of murky, dark green milieu of their urban areas complicit in a naked violence that leaves very little in the way of shock left available.
Kim ki-duk’s latest worldwide release features moments as nihilistic and depraved as many of his other films, but it’s the more human directness and sharp symbolism that makes its mark here. It’s a tonal approach that made his almost decade-old films Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring and 3-Iron tender masterpieces, and his decision to meld that style with a more generic violent vengefulness is a tad disappointing. Perhaps the film’s ties to Christian imagery – the title refers to Italian depictions of the Virgin Mary cradling the corpse of Jesus – have made the subtleties of the story become instead stark and overt. Kang-do’s conversion from solitary, cold-hearted gangster to protective mummy’s boy is too quick to be meant as realistic; instead, Kim seems to be using his narrative more as a morality tale, with all the black-and-white shading that entails. As Kang-do’s life becomes brighter, the more the nihilism seems to grow around him – clients he visits calmly accepting their fates – his darkness now bleeding out into the world around him.
Kang-do is, he might say, a debt collector, with a little black book kept at home as he ventures out to the local business owners who’ve borrowed money at some impossible interest rate. Insurance pays out, so Kang-do will cripple them, to force their hand, as it were. When Jang Mi-sun (Jo Min-su) forces her way into his life, his resistance to her claims that she is the mother who abandoned him as a child soon gives way to devotion and a softer man. But when she goes missing, his former life comes back to hurt him in more ways than one.
As ever, Pietà is adorned with some impeccable imagery, shot by newcomer Jo Young-Jik. Kim’s images are where the power of his films lies, dialogue only used by necessity; and from the opening shots of the rusted hook to the chilling closing sequence, Pietà follows suit. It’s mostly doused in the rusty green colour of modern Korean cinema, but Kim and Jo find haunting, pointed imagery in the clever angling of an opaque wall divider and the dull glow of a mobile phone. Most effectively, the Christian imagery is never overdone, instead woven into the simple arc of the story.
Jo Min-su is Kim’s greatest weapon in Pietà’s arsenal; her still face on her appearance belies the depths she will later plumb, whether it’s the silent release of a single tear, the imperious anger at a laughing local, or contorted horror at the actions of her ‘son’. What’s more, she devastatingly sells the unexpected emotional heart of the film’s climax. She digs her way under the film’s nihilism and pessimism to simultaneously make sense of the film’s sharp narrative and raise a dozen more questions. She isn’t the Virgin Mary of the Pietà so much as the veil resting on her head.
“Don’t you have a mum?” begs one indebted businessman during one of Pietà’s baldest scenes. The (unanswered) question doesn’t come with a response as straightforward as it should, and the murkiness around that very question is what Kim mines for both his most shocking images – “If you’re my mum, eat this.” – and the simplest of tragedies. It isn’t his most graceful work, nor his most rewarding, but it is typically enigmatic, even in the face of the narrative’s overt structure. Kim ki-duk remains a master of an impossible balancing act.