Review: Mother doesn't know best in proudly nasty Golden Lion winner 'Pietà'
(As promised, we still have a couple of straggler reviews left to wind down our Venice coverage, kicking off with the film that wound up taking the gold -- and which I caught up with on the festival's final evening.)
VENICE -- As a general rule of thumb, no film that opens on an image of a rusty meat hook is going to rival “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” in the innocuous-crowdpleaser stakes. Sweatily, almost loving lit in such a way that suggests the “Saw” franchise hasn't entirely missed batty Korean auteur Kim Kim-duk's cultural radar, that hook – which almost certainly has never been used for curing Christmas hams – promises a baseline of nastiness from which this elevated exploitation thriller never deviates, whether tilting into geometrically ironic black comedy or the florid maternal melodrama implied by the title. There's a lot going on in “Pietà,” but with most of it falling under the column of extreme suffering and humiliation in variously high keys, it won't feel that way to those with only one eye on the bubbling plot.
Though not the most violent or gleefully grotesque entry in the modern K-thriller canon, “Pietà” must nonetheless rank among the most self-consciously despairing. When the protagonist of the piece is a below-zero debt collector whose MO is irreparably crippling non-payers and reaping the disability insurance, it's clear that Kim's morality tale is working intricately to quash the construct of morality itself in contemporary society.
Set in Cheonggyecheon, a poverty-soiled stretch of inner-city Seoul where even the lightest of industry has fallen to severe loan-shark rule, “Pietà” is yet another cinematic response to the global economic downturn of the last few years, taking rather an atypically humorless hard line against capitalism – though whether that social corruption informs or merely exacerbates the base human evil on ample display here may be more of a subject for debate than this reliably ungiving filmmaker intends. Either way, there's a lot of impressively thorough maiming, quasi-incestuous rape and eel-based cruelty to factor in before opening that discussion.
The aforementioned debt collector (played with a threatening aura of sustained sulk by Lee Jung-jin) is named Kang-do; I endeavored to resist a regrettable pun about his having a kang-do approach to his profession, but he is introduced to us as an appropriately efficient and instruction-bound enforcer, systematically (and quite literally) breaking down his employees' debtors with well-aimed blows to the ribs, limbs, spine – whichever injury hasn't been shown to us most recently. You'd call him automaton-like if not for the tight insinuation of enjoyment in his demeanor; when one victim refers to him as “the devil” – true to the title, there's a lot of Christian imagery at play in this seemingly secular film – he takes it as one would a client's compliment.
Less accepting of this slur, and capable of wielding some paralyzing damage herself, is Min-sun (Cho Min-soo, a wry presence in a film not big on subtleties), the mournfully beautiful older woman who begins stalking him, leaving food on his doorstep and offering unsolicited assistance in his hit jobs. When she finally claims to be his long-lost mother, having left him as an infant to fester psychologically, it's hard to imagine that he came from any womb at all. Kang-do is pretty skeptical himself, forcing his mother to prove her maternal devotion such a series of absurdly denigrating challenges. When she passes them in his eyes, they adopt each other not just as friends but as collaborators – but the unfamiliar burden of personal connection erodes Kang-do's professional resolve, as he begins showing uncharacteristic cracks of mercy that, in a neatly-reversal strewn final act, wind up showing very little to him.
The softening effect on a hardman of a female presence (usually a girlfriend, here a mother, though Kang-do and Min-sun don't have a lot of respect for boundaries) is a fairly standard story arc in Hollywood and beyond. However, in this uninhibited but not exactly progressive film – which you could retitle “Stop! Or My Mom Will Stab” for a multiplex audience that would appreciate the lushness of its violence, if little else – the woman's influence doesn't seem to ameliorate violence so much as divert its current.
Recent Korean cinema, both within and outside of the thriller form, has bred a curious sub-genre: studies of older women attempting to renegotiate their sons' violent legacies. Bong Joon-ho's far richer and even more frenziedly operatic “Mother” will be an obvious point of comparison for many; Lee Chang-dong's opalescent character study “Poetry” less so, but “Pietà” archly shares with both films an interest in the mutation and occasional consistency of personal sin across the generations. Meanwhile, the title's alignment of the mutually blood-stained Min-sun and Kang-do with the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ is the queasiest joke in a film of many, even if Cho Min-soo's perfect porcelain face seems made up to equal specifications of Madonna and MILF.
It may seem a provocation to many Western eyes, but “Pietà” actually marks something of a safe step back for Kim – or at least a return to the more audience-cooperative form of “3-Iron,” after a more experimental, documentary-inspired run that either culminated or bottomed out with last year's unwatchable (though somehow Cannes-awarded) faux-video diary “Arirang.” His latest is certainly more satisfyingly, even rigidly, narrative-based – you can practically hear the resolutions clicking into place in the film's taxingly shrieky but cleverly precise final act – though mileage will vary on the emotional payoff to be gained from watching profoundly unpleasant people lay their demons, and sometimes themselves, to rest.
Formally, however, the director isn't out of the woods yet. What's hardest in “Pietà” to reconcile with the widespread gasps of admiration (and, of course, the Golden Lion) that greeted it on the Lido is the rampantly grubby ugliness of the whole thing. Shot in particularly mangy digital, with compressed compositions that lend every set the appearance of a moderately outsize matchbox bit with a bare bulb, it emphatically opts out of the technical bravado wielded by extravagantly grim peers like “I Saw the Devil”; you'd say Kim was extending his flirtation with vérité if the plotting weren't so large and so shrill. Nasty is as nasty does, and this lurid if aspirational potboiler does its thing, but the camera could have been let in on the joke.