“What is money? Life? Death?”- quote from the film, Pieta.
|Director, Kim Ki-duk|
If you are familiar with the director of Pieta, Kim ki-duk, you will be aware of the accolades his films have received internationally. Kim’s 18th film, Pieta, was recognised at the 69th Venice Film Festival in 2012 and received the Golden Lion. Those who are brave enough to sit through the 104 minutes of challenging material, will be satisfied with the film’s awarded status. However, as is the case with any film that incorporates confronting and graphic material, the ability of the film to polarise views and reactions will not be a surprise.
|Lee Jeong-jin as the sadistic Lee Kang-do|
Pieta traces the sadistic, pitiless character, Lee Kang-do, played by Lee Jeong-jin; a relentlessly violent character who lives a solitary existence with no sign of family or friends. He works for loan sharks, who prey on the workshop owners in the industrial area of Cheongyecheon. With no concern for the situation of these workshop owners, who are trying to make ends meet, the loan sharks demand ten times the amount of a one month loan. Kang-do’s role does not stop at merely collecting money, it transgresses into the sadistic as he maims those who cannot repay their loans in order to file insurance claims for the handicap payout. There is an element of pathological violence that Kang-do exerts on the susceptible industrial workshop owners who cannot repay their loans, and he refuses to display any feeling or remorse towards his vulnerable victims.
|Jo Min-soo as the enigmatic Jang Mi-seon|
Audiences will no doubt experience moments of visceral disgust with the graphic nature of animal cruelty and the vehement viciousness of his actions, and will wonder if anything will quell the irrational violence of Kang-do. This is the moment a woman, Jang Mi-seon, (played by Jo Min-soo) claiming to be Kang-do’s long-lost mother, appears and proceeds to stalk the stolid character. It appears nothing can pierce the emotionally impenetrable Kang-do, who refuses to believe that this is the woman who abandoned him; but gradually he begins to form a bond with the mysterious Mi-seon. This bond emerges only after the two engage in disturbing acts that resonate oedipal tendencies, that will ultimately force viewers to turn away in contempt.
The mother-son relationship that develops between the two is tenuous at first, but the audience will witness Kang-do’s gradual exposure to a lost childhood. Myeong-dong is the site where Kang-do recaptures this juvenility of youth, with both characters acting as five year olds might at a carnival. Those familiar with downtown Seoul will recognise the colourful and lurid luminosity of the shopping area of Myeong-dong, which cinematographically juxtaposes with the rawness of the industrial area of Cheongyecheon. There will be rare moments of tenderness and reprieve for the audience, but the ending will leave many questioning the revenge motif that is so common in Korean film.
Kim Ki-duk’s use of the Christian subject, the Pietà, for the film’s title and promotional material is an interesting choice, but a choice that finds parallels as the film progresses. Throughout the centuries, artists have created various artistic depictions of the Virgin Mary sorrowfully cradling the lifeless form of Christ after the crucifixion. Michelangelo’s recognisable marble sculpture, the Pietà, the most renowned example, is retained in St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Kim utilises the iconic visual representation of the Pietà for the film’s promotional material, but it has the ability to transcend the visual and inculcate a range of emotions and thought-provoking questions that essentially captures the essence of Kim's directorial brilliance.
Whether the Pietà is viewed in sculptural or painted form, the prominent Christian subject tends to evoke sentiments of pity, sorrow, compassion and sacrifice; sensations which do surface sporadically throughout the film, but cataclysmically collide with confronting images of depravity and a main character seemingly devoid of emotion. Inevitably, it is this binary that will send Sydney audiences on a psychologically-charged journey through the washed-out, colourless setting of the dilapidated industrial area of Cheongyecheon in central Seoul, into the workshops of the financially defenceless. As the film progresses you will make connections with the relationship between mother and son and the notion of sacrifice and pity, which is eloquently conveyed at various points throughout the film and echoes sensations encapsulated by the the Pietà. The ‘Dark Matter’ theme is an apt representation of the film, as it works to challenge our conception of human nature, exploring the psychological backwash associated with loss and abandonment, and the intricacies of human relationships and survival. Despite this overpowering preoccupation, the ideological will be there, slowly bubbling away beneath the surface. The film has just as much to say about the overwhelming intoxication and desire for money and the power that it assumes (especially when situated within the context of South Korea’s steady economic ascent) as it does about human nature.
Whilst you will be squirming in your seat like the surrealist image of the eel in the film, the uncomfortableness will undoubtedly challenge your views of the complexity of loss, abandonment and the pursuit of revenge and the psychological turmoil that it perpetuates, and the ability of money to corrupt and subsume. As one disillusioned debtor states: "What is money? Life? Death?"
By Margaret Hurrell
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