After detours spent wandering around Europe for “Amen” and gazing navel-ward in “Arirang,” Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk is back on home turf and up to familiar tricks with “Pieta,” his most commercial pic in years. That said, Asian films featuring brutal violence, rape, animal slaughter and the ingestion of disgusting objects aren’t as commercial as they used to be, even if “Pieta” is relatively tame by Kim’s extreme standards. Nevertheless, this tidy, ultimately moving thriller about a loan shark who meets a woman claiming to be his mother offers up the director’s vintage blend of cruelty, wit and moral complexity.
The story unfolds in Cheonggyecheon, an area in downtown Seoul that’s practically a character in its own right here. Although best known for an urban regeneration project that’s turned the local river into a green spot, the area is still full of rundown, low-rise, light-industrial workshops, populated by lower-middle-class businesspeople and shopkeepers.
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It’s a semi-impoverished milieu ripe for exploitation by loan sharks, such as the one (Son Jong-hak) who employs the pic’s protagonist, Kang-do (hunky Lee Jung-jin, from “Troubleshooter” and “No Doubt”). A brutal enforcer whose specialty is crippling debtors in order to collect the insurance money for their injuries, the much-hated Kang-do is repeatedly described as a “devil” by his victims, reinforcing the Catholic imagery that runs throughout the pic, and is embedded in its title (which refers to depictions of the bereaved Virgin holding the dead Christ).
While making his usual rounds one day, maiming with machinery and pushing people off tall buildings, Kang-do notices that an attractive woman in her 40s, Min-sun (Cho Min-soo, wonderful) is following him, leaving him food at the bleak apartment he lives in alone, and even helping him injure victims. She reveals herself to be the long-lost mother who abandoned him as a baby, paving the way for him to become the monster he is now.
Initially skeptical, but eventually convinced when she proves her determination to make amends by submitting to acts of humiliation best not detailed in a publication that could be read over breakfast, he finally accepts her story as truth. But the grace of maternal love starts to sap his desire to mutilate debtors. He even choses to leave one young man (Kwon Se-in) unscathed when he learns that he borrowed money to give his unborn child a better life, a scene with a deliciously black comedy sting in its tail.
Now that he has someone to love, Kang-do also is much more vulnerable to acts of revenge from former victims. After one of them, Tae-seung (Jo Jae-ryong), tracks Kang-do down and holds a knife to Min-sun’s throat, Kang-do becomes as overprotective of his mom as any doting son. The revelation of a key plot twist, the first of several, sets the narrative spiraling back around to reintroduce characters met earlier, tying the story up in the end with an elegant neatness and economy.
The pic’s gritty, urban setting and thoughtful engagement with themes of revenge, sacrifice and redemption harks back to films like “Bad Guy” (2001) and “Samaritan Girl” (2004) that brokered Kim’s reputation as one of Korea’s most innovative and talented helmers. Displaying a confidant brio here that just about justifies the pic’s self-aggrandizing description in the opening credits as “Kim Ki-duk’s 18th film” even before the title comes up, there’s also evidence in “Pieta” of Kim developing as an artist and mellowing as a person. The final reel packs a genuine emotional wallop, even as it makes auds laugh with the vicious precision of its dramatic irony.
Technical execution is pro, although the use of HD cameras leaves the final product somewhat wanting in definition, especially in nighttime scenes. Thesping is aces, particularly the two leads.