Too bad "Pieta" didn't come out last week for Mother's Day. Because South Korean director Kim Ki-duk's film, which won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, manages to capture the terrible, elemental power of mom like few films before.
Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a heartless thug whose life largely consists of masturbating, devouring food with feral intensity, and committing acts of staggering violence against the hapless denizens of a decrepit working-class neighborhood filled mainly with machinist shops. When the shop owners fall behind on their mob-issued loans (and at 100 percent interest per day, how could you not fall behind?), Lee shows up on their doorstep like the angel of death. Only instead of taking the deadbeats' lives, he brutally cripples them — the lucky ones get away with having a hand jammed in the gears of a lathe. The mob then cashes in on their misfortune through an insurance scam.
Then one day, a mysterious woman (Cho Min-soo) shows up at his doorstep claiming to be the mother who abandoned him as a baby. Lee is uninterested in a family reunion. He showers her with abuse, threatens violence, and at one sickening moment almost rapes her. And then, as if trying to figure out a way to top himself, he cuts a chunk off his thigh and forces her to eat it. (Ick.) Yet the woman takes all of his bullying and abuse and gives him nothing but love and concern while cleaning up his rat hole of an apartment and cooking him the odd meal. It's the sort of display of maternal devotion that can crack the flinty façade of even the most hardened criminal.
When the power dynamics shift between the two, the story starts to get interesting. Now flush with parental love, he begins to follows her around like a puppy and finds it harder and harder to do his job. Lee, in his Neanderthal sort of way, begs mom and increasingly his victims for something like forgiveness. "Pieta" is at its strongest when it explores whether or not a character as despicable as Lee is worthy of compassion. Kim's most famous movie abroad, "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring," was chock-full of Buddhist themes, as is this movie in spite of the very Christian title. Lee is forced to reconcile his ugly past in order to move on. The emotional ground that the movie covers in this section is raw, hard to watch, and completely fascinating.
And then the movie reveals its big twist. Mom isn't who she seems to be, and the last thing on her mind is forgiveness — she's hatching a colossally passive-aggressive revenge scheme. In fact, it was only after watching the movie that I realized that her plan is so crazy that it verges on the darkly comedic. Unfortunately, Kim comes from the Oliver Stone school of filmmaking, which boasts overblown emotion, testosterone-fueled provocation, and a weighty self-seriousness. And it's too bad. A Hitchcockian touch of humor or irony would have leavened this difficult, compelling film's strange, troubling ending.
"Pieta" opens this week in New York and Los Angeles.
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Check out the trailer for 'Pieta':