Lee Kang-do Lee Jung-jin
Mi-son Cho Min-soo
Hoon-chul Woo Ki-hong
Myung-jai Kang Eun-jin
the Guitar Kwon Se-in
Suicidal Man Heo Jun-seok
Mother of Suicidal
Man Lee Myeong-ja
Drafthouse Films presents a film written and directed by Kim Ki-duk. In Korean, with English subtitles. Running time: 104 minutes. No MPAA rating (workplace injury and sexual violence). Opening Friday at Facets Cinematheque.
Updated: June 18, 2013 6:29AM
Thou shalt not borrow, nor maim those who owe interest, preaches Kim Ki-duk in “Pieta.” Lee Kang-do is a cruel collector for Happy Private Loans. He inflicts industrial accidents on debtors to get their insurance settlements. When it’s time for this 30-year-old orphan to settle his debt to society, payback is one “crazy bitch.”
That’s what Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) first calls Mi-son (Cho Min-soo), the pained and passive woman who appears one day, claiming she abandoned him at birth. She sings him a lullaby over her cellphone. After sexually violating this stranger in a primal outburst, he begins behaving like her long-lost son. She moves in and cooks his meals. He buys her nice things. He rethinks his line of work. Then the imposter exacts her revenge on the usurer who made her real son pay with his life.
“Pieta” opens with a machine-assisted suicide in a small shop in Seoul. It closes with another act of self-destruction, also using a chain and motor. Self-abnegation in shocking form figures in every Kim film. “Torturing others, getting tortured and torturing oneself,” is what life is all about, Kim tells the camera in his video diary “Arirang” (2011). Lee Kang-do and Mi-son obey brutal logics as they inflict and self-inflict violence.
Three years of seminary classes may have primed Kim to title “Pieta” after Michelangelo’s signature marble statue. The film’s poster poses the mother and son characters as the Virgin Mary cradling dead Jesus. The church across from Lee Kang-do’s apartment bears the sign “Hallelujah Forever.” “Kyrie, eleison” is sung as a benediction over the last scene, an aerial shot from an ascending camera. A New Testament verse applies: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
“‘Pieta’ is a film about excessive capitalism,” Kim told the Xinhua News Agency. In his press notes, he adds: “I believe that audiences who see the film will question capitalist society.”
That impact is more likely with documentaries such as “Capitalism: A Love Story,” “The Corporation,” “Debtocracy” or “I.O.U.S.A.” Kim deals with an ancient suspicion of money that predates Marx, MasterCard and Madoff.
Kim is an obsessive auteur. His 18th film is no departure from his oeuvre, which focuses on issues of faith or finance. “Pieta” offers his usual extreme seekers of justice. The tragic perversity is gripping.
Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer and reviewer.