Korean Film in Review: “Pieta” by Kim Ki-Duk, the Mad Dog of Korean Cinema

Here’s a fun game: next time you are in a room full of film buffs ask the question “Hey everyone! How do you feel about Kim Ki-Duk?” Then sit back and watch the room explode.

While not widely known by mainstream audiences, Kim Ki-Duk is an enfant terrible of art house cinema. Kim has a preternatural ability to stir up trouble, both for the shocking content of his films and his uniquely uneven cinematic style. His infamous reputation has made him divisive and controversial to a fever pitch.

Kim Ki-Duk's Korea is an endlessly brutal, squalid, and industrial landscape.

Kim Ki-Duk’s Korea is an endlessly brutal, squalid, and industrial landscape.

Among other controversies, his film “The Isle” was delayed from UK release due to instances of animal cruelty. During the filming of “Dream” actress Lee Na-Jeong (girlfriend of actor Won Bin) nearly died when a staged hanging went awry. The incident became the basis for Kim’s documentary “Arirang” which drew a standing ovation and a win at Cannes, and 33% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Like I said: divisive.

“Pieta,” Kim’s best known film, was born to be infamous.  It has a vision of unrelenting brutality and sadism, mixed heavily with Christian imagery. Somehow, the film managed to wrest the top prize at the Venice Film Festival from such established names as Brian De Palma (Scarface, The Untouchables), Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), and Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours) in a terrific upset.

Though Kim is often thematically compared with Park Chan-Wook, I would put him closer to Danish director Lars Von Trier. Kim’s films (like those of Von Trier) are meant to devastate. Their films show the human condition at its most repulsive and grotesque. Kim leaves nothing to the imagination, forcing his audiences to watch unbelievably depraved scenes.

“Pieta” is no exception. Like many Korean films, it delves deep into the world of predatory private loans. Lee Kang-Do is an enforcer, crippling those who cannot pay up in order to take their insurance claim payments. Inexplicably, Kang-Do is played by Lee Jung-Jin, star of the fluffy rom-com “A Hundred Years Legacy.”

Screenshot from "The Isle." Violence against women is a running theme in Kim's often misogynistic oeuvre.

Screenshot from “The Isle.” Violence against women is a running theme in Kim’s often misogynistic oeuvre.

A woman appears claiming to be the mother who abandoned Kang-Do at birth. In a typical movie, this would queue a montage of healing and moral improvement. But Kim Ki-Duk is no ordinary director.

Jang Mi-Sun (Jo Min-Su) starts as a parody of the supportive mother. When she first arrives she frantically cleans her son’s apartment, wordlessly wiping up the unidentified innards rotting on his bathroom floor. The more she sticks around the more disturbing it gets. At one point, Kang-Do forces his mother to undergo “tests” to prove she is really his mother. This consists of A) cutting a part out of his thigh and forcing her to eat it and B) Threatening to sexually assault her unless she admits she’s not his mother. She refuses to back down and he eventually brutally rapes her. And this is only an early scene in a film defined by ever-mounting horror.

However, Kim’s real importance is not in shock value (though that certainly matters). What makes him such a fascinating director is his astounding stylistic contradictions.

The glow from the cell phone adds a sense of unease to what could be a nice gesture: a mother singing a lullaby to her son

The glow from the cell phone adds a sense of unease to what could be a nice gesture: a mother singing a lullaby to her son

In one scene he will display a dazzling level of technical ability. In the next scene he’ll make an amateur’s mistake. He is at once clear focused, brilliant, muddled, and primitive.  For example, while leading up to Kang-Do’s assault, the camera is steady and slick, creating a feeling of passive observation. As soon as the rape occurs it turns to a more handheld style, with distracting manual zoom adjustments.

For more examples, throughout “Pieta” there are little moments of brilliance other directors could only dream of. An eel slides in slow motion down a staircase. The mother’s face is eerily lit by her cell phone. The careful color scheme of Kang-Do’s room shows an alert attention to detail.

This is matched with ham-fisted special effects and severe holes in character development. In an installment of Scenic Routes the AV Club’s Mike D’Angelo highlights this paradox. Kim Ki-Duk can dazzle, so why does he purposefully muck up his films? He walks the line between brilliance and idiocy seemingly unaware.

“Pieta” is worth watching if you have a serious interest in art film, Asian contemporary cinema, or just love messed up movies. However, as you may have guessed, it is not for the faint at heart.

What did you think about “Pieta”? Let us know in the comments.