By Michael Sicinski [Note: this review contains mild spoilers.] In his most recent film with Sophie Fiennes, The Pervert’s Guide More →
I was planning on starting this little capsule by noting how I had never seen anything by Kim Ki-duk prior to this viewing. Turns out, I still haven’t; and given that, this obviously isn’t a review, or even really about Pieta at all. If you’re wondering, based on the thirty-some minutes that I saw—I checked out when the anti-hero (or whatever) stuck his hand into the vagina of a woman claiming to be his mother and starting yelling, “IS THIS WHERE I CAME FROM?”—it’s either a mediocre parody of Extreme Asian Cinema or one of the worst movies ever made. My knowledge of Mr. Kim’s (I don’t know why, but there’s something about his appearance that makes me feel like I need to call him mister) body of work extends only as far as the following, most of which is gleaned from random internet comments and my time working in the film library at the University of Virginia, where he seemed to be a pretty popular guy with a certain set of arthouse-type undergrads: 1) He has a film called 3-Iron, which I find a really evocative and enticing title (although significantly less so after seeing what I did of Pieta), and another called Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, which I find the exact opposite of evocative and enticing; 2) He apparently has a thing for onscreen depictions of harm being done to animals (this crops up in Pieta, though mostly by suggestion as far as I saw); 3) His previous film was a sort of cine-letter expressing his depression, which was apparently brought on by the on-set near-death of the lead actress in one of his films. I offer this mainly as evidence of the incredibly vague set of ideas—all but a clean slate—I was bringing to Pieta, a first viewing from a director who, at least if a variety of festival juries over the last decade are to be believed, is a major figure in contemporary world cinema. What I saw, leaving aside the drooling approach to violence, was something with no sense of space, of bodies in the world, of texture, of movement, of light, hell, of really anything that might conceivably warrant continuing on to see if all of this dour bullshit was actually going anywhere. In short, further evidence of the fact that, as Dennis Lim recently said, we should probably just call it a day on having festival juries.
For those interested in the worst major festival winner since the Palme d’Or for Amour, feel free to consult the following documentation of Kim Ki-duk’s key dialogues for Pieta, amply showcasing the subtlety and sucker-punch ingenuity of this movingly ridiculous saga of a brutal loan-shark’s awakening of conscience after a woman introduces herself as his long-lost mother and starts following him around.
[To appropriately underscore the weight of every declaration, we've decided to use Caps for every word, which is pretty much how the dialogue is delivered. For easier use, we've added what we presume the rest of the script looked like. Why the finished film lasts over 100 minutes is a mystery we still ponder.—Ed.]
[Title accompanied by “The 18th Film of Kim Ki-duk.” Establish Kang-do's ruthlessness on various loan-shark missions.]
Kang-do: “Go Away, I’ve Got Enough Of You!”
Mom: “What Will You Eat Today? Pork? Eel? Duck?”
[Symbolic downfall of eel.]
Kang-do: “I Came Out Of Here For Sure? Then Why Can’t I Go Back In? I Will Go Back In!”
Loan-shark victim: “Can I Borrow More Money?”
Kang-do: “Why Did You Borrow It?”
Loan-shark victim: “’Cuz We’re Having A Baby.”
[Moved by victim's guitar playing and sense of parental duty, Kang-do denies to mutilate him for insurance money and leaves. Scream of victim as he self-mutilates in off-screen. (cf. Notes on the Cinematographer)]
Kang-do: “Death Complicates The Claim.”
Suicidal victim: “Death? What Is Death?”
[Suicidal victim jumps to death. Show leaflet “Happy Fast Loans” inconspicuously lying on the floor.]
Kang-do [masturbated by Mom]: “I Can’t Live Alone Anymore.”
[Kang-do visits another victim, is shown his burial site by his mother.]
Victim’s mother: “How Can You Die Because Of Money?”
[Mom—SPOILER—who is not Mom, but turns out to be the wrathful wife taking revenge for another victim—let's call him Sang-gu—prepares to finish her job.]
Mom: “Sang-gu? You Waited Long, Right? The Fool’s Soul Will Die Now. When I Die Before His Eyes.” (…) “Why Am I So Sad?” (…) “I Didn’t Intend To Feel This. But I Feel Sorry For Him. Poor Kang-do!”
[“Mom,” pretending that she is being threatened with being thrown off a building.]
Mom: “Kang-do, I’m Scared!”
Kang-do: “Don’t Kill Mom. I’m To Blame!” (…) “It’s My Fault. Please Kill Me.”
Mom: “Sang-gu, You’re Not Alone Anymore.” [Jumps to death just before she's pushed—my masterstroke!]
[Time for reflection.]
One might assume that the grossest thing that could happen while watching a movie is that one’s audience neighbour sneezes, his projectile snot landing on one’s shirt. One would be wrong, given that the movie being watched is Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta, in which a son forces his mother to masticate on a piece of flesh he has caaved out of his thigh and, for good measure, shoves his hand into mom’s private parts.
Lev Lewis, Yonah Lewis & Calvin Thomas
A bold and haunting excursion into hearts of darkness, Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta kicks down the shuttered doors of cinema, bravely announcing itself as an auteurist exploration of human disconnect. A chronicle of pain that hooks from its opening image, one that brings to mind both the sadistic pleasure of the Saw series as well as Kim’s fellow countrymen’s similar, but comparatively shallow, works. This story of familial return and inevitable disintegration strikes a powerful chord with its simplicity, shades of Ozu lingering within the bloody shadows of each perfectly constructed frame. Kim’s daunting command of sound and sight propels him into the top ranks of working filmmakers, not a surprise for the few of us lucky enough to have seen all of his past 17 masterworks. Protagonist Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) might make his living off of crippling unpaid debtors, but upon further examination the realization hits that the true cripple may in fact be Kang-do, and beyond that perhaps Kim himself.
I once called Kim Ki-duk a “singular” filmmaker in a first draft of a capsule review and was upbraided by my American editor for displaying a distinct lack of taste. What can I say: I did not hate 3-Iron (2004) nor Time (2006) when I saw them, and I remember having a long conversation with another critic about Bad Guy (2001)—specifically, about whether Kim’s seemingly obsessive fixation on scary, impassive male assholes and the women who come to cower before them was the crux of a misogynist oeuvre or the tactics of a clever director engaged in a kind of ongoing critique.
Watching—or more accurately, impatiently and uncomfortably sitting through—a few more Kim movies (coming both before and after Bad Guy in his prolific catalogue) pretty much disabused me of the latter notion, and also made me realize that I didn’t really care about the former. Even if Kim really was (or is) a guy who gets off on filming aggressive sexual congresses between gangsters and the mute gals who inexplicably love them, it was of no concern to me if I just didn’t watch the films any more. By skipping out, I wouldn’t be missing any sort of artistic evolution (since there was, and by all reports is) none to speak of: I would reword my earlier assessment from “singular” to “single-minded.” And I wouldn’t really be missing any key developments in new South Korean cinema since there were and are directors who (infinitely) more skillfully fuse arthouse and grindhouse tropes (Bong Joon-ho), or examine problematic gender dynamics (Hong Sang-soo), or who more entertainingly overreach their grasp (Kim Ji-woon).
I was sort of sad to miss Arirang (2011), if only because it sounded like some kind of mad spectacle, and maybe the key Kim Ki-duk film in that his megalomania was presented unfiltered, undisguised, and straight up. I was not sad to miss Pieta, not only because everyone I asked who saw it in Venice or in Toronto (at least a dozen people, not all of whom are film critics or at all affiliated with this magazine) said it was awful, and because after a week of seeing far more good movies than bad ones at TIFF, I didn’t want to go out on a sour note. I hear that a character (a violent jerk, surprise) gets a handjob from somebody pretending to be (or who maybe is) his mother, and that a lot of people get crippled, and that every possible button is pushed incessantly with the heaviest hand in Asian auteur cinema. I have no regrets.
The best way to review Pieta would be to retell the story as it is: a swanky guy spends his dreary nights jerking off and earns his daily bread by terrifying the drudgers of the neighbourhood and beating their debts out of them. He invariably turns up at the most tearful of all moments, while they are comforting their elderly mothers or talking to their pregnant wives. But he is a man of no emotions, so he proceeds ruthlessly with cutting and crippling their limbs. One day a sad woman starts following him around, weeping incessantly and blaming herself for all of the protagonist’s misdeeds. Who would she be? An allegory of pity? The lady presents herself as his long-lost mother who abandoned him some thirty years ago. Having successfully fed her with a morsel of his own flesh, he thrusts his hand between her legs (fisting is always appreciated between mother and son, huh?), demanding hysterically: “I came out of here? Can I go back in?” Only then he is able to accept her “motherhood.” A subsequent handjob makes him abandon all ferocity for fear of a revenge that the hateful cripples might eventually wreak upon his newly-found parent. The unlikely combinations of events include the appearance of a pet rabbit stolen from one of the victims, followed by a sentimental melody. The creature is doomed (this being a Kim film, after all): it will be hit by a car. But the formerly heartless thug will find another object for his care, namely, a helpless sapling. A metaphor, one should presume.
What was that? Was it a South Park episode mocking the recent festival trends? Oh no, it is Kim Ki-duk’s Oeuvre No. 18, as the opening credits proudly announce. Alas! There is no transition from quantity to quality. Even the widely acclaimed, narcissistic Arirang attests to the director’s troglodyte understanding of mise en scène: suffice to say that he repositions the camera several times in order to depict the drinking of a cup of coffee. (To understand what a real filmmaker could truly achieve in the same no-budget conditions, just watch This Is Not a Film by Jafar Panahi, Mekong Hotel by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Women on the Edge by Kobayashi Masahiro, or La fille de nulle part by Jean-Claude Brisseau.) During the very first sequences of Pieta one recoils at the poorly arranged scenes, pointless zooms, and rough editing. The film starts off with a succession of cruel episodes, trying to impress the viewer with straightforward, monotonous violence. A movie genre based on pure physiology actually exists—it’s called porno. Why the premiere of Pieta took place in the main competition of the Venice Film Festival, and not on PunishTube, remains a mystery.
Are we actually to believe that somewhere in the world you can still trade any form of nonsense under the label of Korean poetic exoticism? Mostra, Michael Mann. When Maestro Kim got his Golden Lion, I was reminded of Symbol, the excellent absurdist comedy by Hitoshi Matsumoto. In one scene, the main character finds himself locked in a room full of angel penises. Each time he pulls at one, an object falls out of the wall, just like in a computer game. The guy finishes by getting stuck pulling the same trigger that brought him chopsticks again and again. He pulls, and pulls, and pulls, and in the end a cart comes out and hit his leg. Kim Ki-duk got better luck: after eighteen futile attempts, a Golden Lion suddenly fell out of the skies. The Venetian jury’s verdict proved more grotesque and absurd than any of Pieta‘s episodes, which somehow grants the film its only excuse for existence. Life always beats fiction, even when it comes to folly, although this time it had to try really hard.
I can’t bring myself to write about this movie.
Upon arriving in Toronto for the festival on the 6th, I discovered that Pieta, Kim Ki-duk’s new film, was one of the few viewing options in the early evening time slot. Although I’ve been continually underwhelmed by Kim’s penchant for fusing grisly violence with maudlin plot contrivances, I crossed my fingers while entering the screening and hoped for some sort of miraculous aesthetic transformation. None was forthcoming—although Kim’s perverse Catholic sensibility ordains that some unlikely occurrences of not-so-divine grace are shoehorned into the narrative miasma. I was naturally dumbfounded when such a mediocre piece of claptrap won the Golden Lion at Venice. It’s possible that Pieta’s account of debt collector Lee Kang-do’s metamorphosis from a brutal killer into a near life-affirming softie once his long-lost mother arrives on the scene could be credible in the hands of a director less willing to alternate between ham-fisted violence and bathetic plot twists. Like presumably many others, I’m at a loss to fathom why Pieta is considered even incrementally better than other Kim failures such as Bad Guy (2001), Samaritan Girl (2004), The Isle (2000)… well, one could go on for a while listing misbegotten films by this director. What is particularly infuriating is that Kim’s output receives lavish attention in the West while a much more talented Korean director like Kim Kyung-mook—whose Stateless Things was one of the most notable films on the festival circuit last year—remains virtually unknown.
There is suffering then there is waking up far too early—and with TIFF apathy and exhaustion setting in no less—to watch Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta. Thus, as a conscientious objector, I refused marching orders from our tireless editor and watched the trailer instead. On a grey background as dramatic piano music inundates our ears, a familar logo materializes, a ghostly and ominous apparition—this film was a winner at Venice. (Et tu, Michael Mann?) One minute and fifty-three seconds of The 18th Film of Kim Ki-duk suffices to hammer home Pieta’s obvious iconography and retrograde thematics. Over a Renaissance painting of Jesus and Mary we hear a man and woman whispering in ambiguous and breathy prose about forgiveness (shades of To the Wonder?). The painted visages of the holy mother and son are suddenly transposed over a man and woman in an erotic embrace. Get it? Got it? Good. Cue a string of empty signifiers which are clearly meant to be read as portentous, but merely come across as art-school cliché: a dead rooster (Penis substitute!) dangles from a man’s hand, juxtaposed with a woman in a red dress (Lust! Evil!). After much genuflecting (Religion! Forgiveness! Subjugation!) and frantic cleaning (Purity! Guilt! Women!), she declares herself to be his mother. Or rather an intertitle does, key words coloured in red for emphasis. By the point (one minute and twenty-five seconds) when we’re informed by more on screen text “Then she suddenly disappears!” this entire endeavour beings to feel futile. With title cards on par with that of a clip-art presentation and communicating equally facile ideas, pretenses of this being an actual film dissipate and attention begins to drift to the YouTube side bar…“Taken 2 – International Trailer (2012) [HD]”…Click.
Animal cruelty, dry humping, multiple cripplings, motherfucking: Pieta’s a hollow, dead-behind-the-eyes Director Kim Ki-Duk movie. His eighteenth! That Kim’s latest exercise in odorous abjection and button-pushing is named after a Michelangelo is laughable. That it won a major film prize is a downright hilarious joke perpetrated on programmers, buyers, and the film-going public. Pieta stinks. The long-and-short: Lee Jung-jin plays a debt collector whose ruthlessness is undermined when a constantly weeping woman (Cho Min-soo) shows up at his door. She’s his mother. (Or is she?! [She isn’t.]) He fucks her. She jerks him off. He feeds her a piece of him. Yawn. Unlike Trier, Haneke, even Miike, there’s nothing at all interesting, let alone provocative, about Kim’s needy provocations. He’s less a prankster than an agitator—cinema’s Woody Woodpecker. Perversely fitting that, along with his Golden Lion, he’d also get the last laugh.
I will confess to having momentarily flirted with the idea that Kim Ki-duk might not be completely irredeemable. Like some others, I was a bit disoriented by the thin air and flush times of 2003, and found myself mildly impressed with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Yes, Indeed, Spring Once Again, which was notable for a relative lack of thuggery and rape. (The monk-in-training did, however, learn important life lessons by tormenting small animals. If you want to make a Zen omelette . . .) “I never moved much past admiring it,” I wrote at the time, which I suppose makes my enthusiasm reassuringly muted. I embarrassingly got on board just a bit with 3-Iron, or so I thought, but again, looking back at my notes, I mostly mock its blatant swipes from Tsai Ming-liang and Michael Haneke, the faux-profundity of its mute protagonists, and Kim’s utterly random fixation on golf-related violence. (Wolf! Gang! Golf! Wang! Kill ‘em all!) Yep, these stylized mediocrities were the apex of Kim Ki-duk’s career.
And so here we are, at Pieta, which the opening credits proudly announce as “The 18th Film by Kim Ki-duk.” Wow, where has the time gone? I’m tempted to rifle through my old reviews of junk like The Isle, Samaritan Girl, Time, and Breath and assemble some particularly vitriolic phrases from those. That would be unconscionably lazy, but no more so than Pieta, which is practically a Greatest Hits collection of mindless brutality, designer squalor and misogyny from across Kim’s illustrious career. A lumbering, rust-and-neon-coloured showcase for another of the director’s pseudo-sympathetic bullyboys, Pieta could, if one were so inclined, be read as an allegory for the struggles of filmmaking and the masochism of spectatorship. (Given Kim’s ample self-pity, on grotesque display in last year’s Arirang, such a reading would not seem so off-base.)
Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin, with a Members Only jacket and Jheri curl that falsely suggests Pieta’s a period piece) is an orphan, and he’s also an enforcer for a loan shark who destroys his victims’ limbs in order to file fraudulent insurance claims. A woman (Cho Min-soo) turns up, announcing that she is his long-lost mother, come to make amends for abandoning him. She is given to purple, Malickian prose: “It would be only right for me to die by your hand.” He is less eloquent: “Stupid bitch! Go away! Crazy bitch!” Over time [SPOILER], it becomes clear that she is really the mother of one of Kang-do’s victims. She wants to “become” his nonexistent mother, and then die, so as to leave him to live with the grief. So, in a way, this mother is the storyteller, and the director, orchestrating patently false emotional investment which, even when revealed as such, continues to generate lasting affect. (Well, that’s how it goes in the film. In real life, we don’t give two shits.) Meanwhile, Kang-do is the recipient of this manipulation, so Kim is rather blatantly aligning his audience with a soulless, amoral mangler of men, someone for whom mutilation and even incestuous rape are acts as thoughtless and automatic as taking a shit.
This is what Kim thinks of his audience. Right back atcha, pal.
Pieta is maybe one of the worst films of 2012, not because it is badly made (some images and scenes are actually quite appealing) but because it strains so desperately to be intellectual and contemporary. Not only does it try to touch on far more topics than any one film could handle—“extreme capitalism” (as the director puts it), the duality of feminism, the role of family in society, religion, crime and brutality, etc.—but it does so in such a backward way that trying to untangle its ideological confusion is almost impossible.
Mary, of course, holds the central position in the original theme of the pieta, and if her role as caring, ministering mother is inherently a servile one, it also makes her crucial to her Son’s holy mission; in Kim’s film, the mother kneels before her loan-shark son and acknowledges, of her own free will, her inferiority. Although it will later be revealed that she has an agenda of her own—that she is in fact not his mother, but the mother of one of the brute’s victims out to avenge her real son’s death—this is no more empowering. The women remain thoroughly domesticated, only able to act and assert themselves by defending the honour of men.
What puzzles me even more is the fact that the theme of “extreme capitalism” is expressed in such a medieval way that it loses connection to the here and now. (I had the same problem with Antichrist, where the feminine violence incarnated by Charlotte Gainsbourg is underlined by archaic tools cum implements of torture, and the setting is a dark, mysterious wood.) Not only should one not have to resort to such outdated tropes to talk about a crisis that is so tremendously changing the Western world especially, but it isn’t even appropriate on a visual level: the bluntness of Kim’s appropriated symbolism clashes with a malady whose symptoms manifest themselves on a far more subtle level. Yes, I learned from Pieta, we are all lost in “extreme capitalism.” But is this really all the film wants to offer?
There’s something undeniably à propos about Kim Ki-duk shooting a significant portion of his Golden Lion-winning Pieta (let’s say, oh, about a quarter of it) on a camera that had a dead pixel in its sensor. Let’s entertain for a moment the possibility that he intentionally didn’t remove it, which would have been a fairly simple process with modern technology. Stuck in the lower-left quadrant of the frame lies a magenta smudge (the crisp dot likely blurred due to heavy compression), periodically stealing our gaze from the goings-on. Offering more of a respite than vexation, it watches us watch it watch us, and almost certainly stands as some kind of harbinger for the death of cinema; first Kim’s, then everyone else’s.
I’d love to go into Kim’s dramaturgical singularities, his editing rhythms, the synopsis, et al to set up a more all-encompassing idea of what Pieta does right and (more often) wrong, but the truth is I couldn’t stop staring at that fucking pixel—or at least the zone of the pixel in its absence, each cut promising its Christ-like re-emergence from the murk of his mise en scène—long enough to follow whatever the hell motivated this incest. It begs consideration with regards to how attuned Kim is to his aesthetics—a question on everyone’s mind since we were optically and aurally assaulted by last year’s Un Certain Regard-winning Arirang. Regarding this new aesthetic shift, he enters into dialogue with the school of pixel painters like T. Marie, whose images democratically designate pixels with individual value, thereby making them all important and idiosyncratic. Which is all to suggest that, in setting up a scenario that activates viewer-awareness of the apparatus as well as specific pixels in the frame, Kim might have made the most structural and materialist film of the year.