The more well-versed that one is in the past decade’s ace revenge thrillers coming out of South Korea, the less I imagine they might get out of Kim Ki-duk’s “Pieta,” a film which may not seem as oddly touching or boldly transgressive as its ultra-violent peers given its more patient and, frankly, familiar agenda.
Brooding enforcer Kang-Do (Lee Jeong-jin, rocking a Robert Smith haircut) carries out his business of collecting debts in an industrial slum of Seoul with remarkable passivity. Almost every victim is a machinist, and so it’s that much easier for him to see that they get injured, subsequently collect insurance and pay his boss back; for those poor souls, the loans will quite literally cost them an arm and a leg.
Then Kang-Do goes home, alone, to a quiet routine of knife play and fervent masturbation. Orphaned at a young age, he has no friends, no family, no one to call his own, a fact that he doesn’t seem to mind... until Mi-Son (Jo Min-soo, terrific) shows up at Kang-Do’s door and insists that she is his long-lost mother. He tries to ignore her, offend her, exclude her, but she fails to relent, even eager to help him hurt others when the job calls for it. He teaches her about cruelty while she exhibits boundless compassion, a gesture that begin to make Kang-Do more empathetic towards his victims and, by virtue of her very presence, more vulnerable towards his enemies (who are usually one and the same).
The notion of a ruthless thug’s creeping conscience may suggest a certain sentimentality on the part of writer/director Ki-duk (“3-Iron,” “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring”), but “Pieta” hardly softens even as its lead does. For him to have someone worth losing only makes him as susceptible to cruelties that are in fact well-deserved, and if anything, Ki-duk skews closer to exploitation territory with the various miseries put upon Mi-Son -- some touches of incest here, some mild cannibalism there -- until her son finally agrees to accept her back into his life.
Yet that sensationalism evolves at a deliberate pace, with resentments, motives and religious motifs being revealed in due time. In walking a fine line between redemption and retribution, Ki-duk punishes us just as his characters inflict pain on one another, physical or otherwise. It may not rank with the operatic madness of Park Chan-wook, or the visceral overkill of Kim Jee-woon, but if you’re still not sick of feeling sick, then “Pieta” might be the movie for you.
SCORE: 7.7 / 10
“Pieta” is now playing in limited release, and is available on VOD and iTunes.