If there was anything worth salvaging in Pietà, it probably got lost in the blood and guts used as props for protagonist Kang-do’s (Lee Jung-jin) kitchen floor—the first of several bloodied body parts to appear severed in the film. Maybe there was a liver in near-perfect condition the crew could have fried up on the barbeque? Perhaps the sets got used for a better movie? Perhaps someone from the cast and crew got a gig due to their involvement with director Kim Ki-duk for Pietà? Perhaps none of the animals shown in the film were killed or hurt? Pietà inspires desperate optimism out of its rampant pessimism and complete lack of virtues. This is not the kind of sick, twisted fantasy dreamt up by the likes of Michael Haneke, Harmony Korine or Lars von Trier that tries to test the viewer’s sense of humanity, though perhaps it has the vaguest notion of being something along those lines, if the contrived Christian symbolism is any indication.
Pietà is simply a futile exercise in useless storytelling, with characters just barely sketched out for the purpose of filming disgusting activities like incest, cannibalism and torture. But to what end, Ki-duk? The film introduces loathable characters; the first is Kang-do, a loan shark who breaks the limbs of his employer’s loan users for lucrative insurance claims. He takes no pleasure out of life, and inflicting pain on others has absolutely no effect on his conscience. He exists simply to sleep, eat, sh*t, masturbate and torture. The second is Mi-sun (Jo Min-su), the mother of a loan user who seeks revenge for her son’s death by planning an over-elaborate revenge scheme on Kang-do. She pretends to be his long-lost mother and successfully manages to enter her fake son’s life, causing him to discover emotional wells inside himself he never knew existed. Which is incredibly believable given his track record of being a decent human being, of course. Once Kang-do fully develops an emotional attachment to Mom, she kills herself in order to drive him crazy from grief.
The scheme is the kind of absurdly manipulative emotional torture seen in better films like Oldboy, but in Pietà, the plan lacks any connective tissue with real human suffering or consequence. And that’s the film’s largest, most unavoidable problem, more pressing than the obscene add-ins, like a scene in which Kang-do fists Mother, loudly asking “I came out of here? Can I go back in?” while also making her eat his flesh (though these scenes too are naturally quite problematic, as they lack purpose even for shock-cinema standards).
Pietà doesn’t just employ ugly characters, it is ugly to look at, with natural lighting doing little for the muddy grey landscapes of South Korea’s industrial nowhereland. Yet even seemingly slighted details like cinematography feel heavily calculated in Pietà; as if Ki-duk were showing us just how ugly his cinema can be to prove a point. What point that could have been—even without the harebrained, florid notions of symbolism thrown about willy nilly—is as long lost as Kang-do’s actual mother. At a certain point while watching Pietà, it becomes easier to believe that there never was a point, than the idea that a filmmaker failed so badly in making some kind of cinematic statement. Anything is easier to swallow than human flesh.
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