“Pieta,” a grim revenge thriller from South Korean provocateur Kim Ki-duk (“The Isle,” “Bad Guy”), follows Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), the Terminator of debt collectors. His boss provides loans to the near-destitute blue-collar workers of Seoul, who huddle like moles in cramped downtown hovels. Most work in the grim industrial sector, helming machines that stamp, cut, and puncture metal.
When these struggling laborers inevitably fall into debt, Kang-do comes calling. His method for retrieving payments is almost incomprehensively callous. After forcing his customers to sign insurance policies at the time of their loans, he later maims them, files the disability claims, and collects reimbursement. The hands that these impoverished debtors rely on for their blue-collar livelihoods are jammed into machinery and dismembered, often while loved ones look on in horror. Knowing the inevitable torture that’s on its way, some clients resignedly jump off buildings at the sight of Kang-do.
After we’re numbed to the unfathomably cruel routine that Kang-do practices for a living, “Pieta” introduces a peculiar, middle-aged woman named Min-sun (Jo Min-su). She’s seen lurking outside Kang-Do’s door, and trailing him in the streets. When Kang-do finally confronts his persistent stalker, she claims to be his mother. After abandoning him as a child, Min-sun explains, she has re-appeared in his life to make up for this past neglect.
Kang-do subjects this new maternal acquaintance to every manner of repulsive humiliation. He rapes her, feeds her a bloody chunk of what appears to be his thigh, and receives an oedipal hand-job. Despite this relentless degradation, Min-sun persists, eventually winning over Kang-do’s trust. Inevitably, there’s a “twist” in the plot that brings clarity to the woman’s motives.
South Korea has become legendary for its extreme revenge flicks. “Oldboy” (the most memorable of Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy”) paved the way with its disturbing tale of imprisonment and incest, Kim Jee-Won’s serial killer stunner “I Saw the Devil” upped the ante, and more recent films such as this one and “Fatal” continue the legacy. But at this point, the formula is becoming tiresome. Sure, “Pieta” is disturbing, but its shocks are strictly been there, done that.
“I Saw the Devil,” one might argue, is an even more graphic film. However, it succeeds on a multitude of levels that “Pieta” does not. For one thing, its ferocious violence is juxtaposed with some truly beautiful imagery. There’s a startling and very effective contrast between gore and gorgeous. In contrast, “Pieta” is just an ugly film about ugly undertakings.
Meanwhile, both “…Devil” and “Oldboy” benefited immeasurably from the appearance of Choi Min-shik, a chameleonic actor who imbues even the most reprehensible characters with complexity and charisma. Unfortunately for “Pieta,” its lead character is played by Lee Jung-jin, a far less compelling presence. You could argue that his flat performance is well-suited to the dead-spirited beast he portrays, but that doesn’t fly with me. In the hands of a creative actor and director, repressed characters can translate to fascinating filmmaking. In this case, Lee is simply a stiff playing a stiff. Later in the film, when Kang-Do attempts to turn a new leaf and redeem himself, Lee simply doesn’t have the range to convincingly depict this transformation.
Into its final stretch, “Pieta” unveils a grand reveal that’s engineered to leave viewers in awe over its cruel inventiveness. I don’t want to spoil the denouement, other than to say that this type of “diabolical” plotting device has been done so often in South Korean revenge mysteries that it’s almost inevitable by now. As a nice bonus to all of the grungy mayhem in “Pieta,” there are some unpleasant depictions of animal cruelty. Don’t mistake “Pieta” for PETA.
“Pieta” is one of the first films I can remember that prompted both nausea and yawns. It’s like weathering the flu, eliciting that familiar feeling of “Oh, s**t – here it comes” queasiness. It’s a shock to the system that’s really not shocking at all. You just want to get it over with.