Film Title: Pieta
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Starring: Lee Jung-jin, Jo Min-su
Running Time: 104 min
In art, the term Pietà can mean any representation of the Virgin Mary cradling the corpse of Jesus after the Crucifixion. In reality, the term almost invariably directs us towards Michelangelo’s marble representation, as housed in St Peter’s Basilica. Not anymore, it won’t.
The reliably controversial Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk has reinvigorated the entire concept with this delirious Golden Lion-winning inversion. In Kim’s Pietà – an opera without the tunes – the protagonist is frequently compared to the devil, and with good reason: Kang-do is a ruthless loan shark who collects insurance for handicaps (which he, in turn, inflicts); he seems incapable of any humanity, let alone mercy.
One day, in a strange, dreamy fashion, an odd woman who claims to be Kang-do’s long-lost mother starts following him around. Disturbing and twisted Oedipal acts soon follow. And that’s before we get properly freaky.
Weirdly, against all odds, the relationship that develops between the antihero and his stalker is as tender as it is shocking and discombobulating. Can Kang-do be saved through displaced maternal affection? Perhaps. We watch him and “mother” skipping gaily through town with balloon animals. He quits his work for the loan shark. He can’t wait to try on the jumper she is knitting for him. But all is not as it seems.
Shot in gaudy, visceral tones against pointedly post-industrial, late-capitalist streets and slums, Pietà is catholic art with a small “c”. As ever, Kim plumbs terrifying depths with relentless depictions of rape and murder. The director’s inventive sadism never fails him or the viewer. The primal scenes – and they are primal – are jollied along by the fevered pitch of Lee Jung-jin and Jo Min-su’s two-step.
Behind the horror and the Freudian nightmares, Kim’s 18th feature is beautiful, seductive, accessible and unexpectedly touching, a reminder that the film-maker who presided over the genital mutilations of The Isle is also the painterly creator behind the Buddhist spiritual Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter . . . Spring.
It’s a film to love like a Stockholm Syndrome victim loves a slap from their captor.