Singapore Film Society Presents: Kim Ki-duk's "Pieta"

(As part of a new series, we will be covering special screenings organized by the Singapore Film Society.)


Kim Ki-duk is, and has been since the start of his career, a polarizing figure in Korean cinema. To his detractors, he is considered an enfant terrible, prone to employing the same provocative gimmicks repeatedly in his films; to his most ardent supporters, he’s one of Korea’s most talented auteurs.

Pieta, which won the Golden Lion at the 69th Venice International Film Festival, contains everything that his haters hate about his films; those less inclined to be offended by his calculated shock tactics – animal cruelty, excessive violence - may find it, as with many of his other films, unnerving but reinvigorating at the same time.

We are swiftly introduced to Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a merciless runner for a moneylender, who spends his days sadistically going around town maiming people who cannot pay up their ridiculously high interest rates, so that they can claim their health insurance and clear their debts.

Kang-do is a person of few words, and a man of fewer emotions. He goes around like a dark plague sucking the joy out of the people he comes in contact with. One day, Mi-son (Jo Min-soo) shows up claiming to be Kang-do’s mother who abandoned him at birth. He of course dismisses her as a nutjob – who wouldn’t? – and he gets more frustrated with her as she continues to follow him everywhere he goes. At one point, she even barges into his house to clean his dishes.

After much effort, Mi-son finally breaks down Kang-do’s defences, and he starts to acknowledge her, but not before doing all sorts of humiliating things on her. Her unwavering belief in and maternal kindness starts to thaw Kang-do’s icy heart, and his conscience awakens as a result.

The first half of the film is truly gripping and intriguing. And it has something to say: all the hand-maiming and leg smashing inflicted by Kang-do on the blue-collar workers is a thinly-veiled metaphor for the way the industrial working class are being trampled cruelly over by Capitalism.

But as we go on to the later parts of the film, it starts meandering into melodramatic territory, devolving into a standard revenge flick which, don’t get me wrong, is still helluva suspenseful and riveting to watch. One or two of the shocking scenes later on in the film, however, do come across as empty provocations, unlike the way the earlier acts of violence seemed to serve a clear message. Fortunately, though the film is not short on violence, a lot of it is elided; the pain of the victims is heard but not seen.

It’s all good. Kim may be liberal with the ickiness, but stick through to the end and he offers something close to redemption, a genuine form of grace. 

Pieta will be screening on the 20th and 21st of July at Cathay Cineleisure Orchard. Tickets can be ordered via the Cathay website.
Kim Ki-duk’s Arirang, a documentary film, will be screening on the 27th and 28th , 7.30pm, at The Arts House.

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