Korean director Kim-Ki-Duk's eighteenth feature Pieta is just too strange, too hell bent on horrifying the viewer. It could have gone the thoughtful, reflective route, and treated the mother-and-lost son theme at its core with subtlety and grace. But it sure didn’t.
A loner and a bit of a psycho, debt collector Kang-Do (Jung-Jin Lee) threatens - and sometimes does - awful things to hard-pressed men who have borrowed and are unable to pay back loans. He threatens them on behalf of his loan shark boss, and he bullies their wives and mothers.
There is usually bitter compliance from Kang-do’s victims, as they sign an insurance claim for the handicap, typically inflicted with summary violence by Kang-do. Through this scam, Kang-do calculates the monetary return on the injuries. He generally cripples the debtors, walks them to the top of high buildings and asks them to throw themselves down. Or they get pushed. Sometimes they commit suicide, which from Kang-Do’s point of view is not satisfactory, in terms of the insurance.
Thus Kang-Do cuts his arrogant swathe through the raggedy, claustrophobic city slum. One day a middle-aged woman Mi-Son (Min-Soo Jo) arrives. She insists that she is the mother who abandoned him at birth.
Over the following weeks, the woman insinuates herself into his company, cooking for him, cleaning up his grotty flat, mothering him, yet acting like a lover too. (Don’t ask.) They walk the town, eat out, he enjoys a kind of late-developing childhood. She too is renewed by the experience, if still clearly unhinged.
But she cries a lot too, tears we are led to believe are her demonstration of maternal guilt. Is she the mother she claims to be? Whatever the case, Kang-do - who has never known love or affection in his life – is certainly softened by the stranger’s presence.
Unfortunately in Pieta, a more refined tragedy has been scuppered for the sake of cheap visceral thrills. The evocative closing shots of a van driving through a dawn breaking over a South Korean waterfront only makes you contemplate the different film it could have been.
Oddly, Pieta won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and it seems to divide opinion. So, over to you, viewer, but, personally, I wouldn’t bother. Showing at the Light House in Dublin.