When it comes to pure shock value, Kim Ki-duk—South Korea’s most divisive auteur—will probably never top his international breakthrough, The Isle. (Two shudder-inducing words: fish hooks.) But as the director’s latest, Pietà, grimly demonstrates, it won’t be for a lack of trying. As if going down some audience-scandalizing checklist, Kim bounds from suicide to masturbation to bodily dismemberment—and all in just the first ten minutes of his dreary new melodrama. Lee Jeong-jin plays the merciless muscle for a loan shark, earning his keep by gruesomely crippling delinquent borrowers, and then deducting what they owe from their disability checks. The film wallows in the details of this brutal profession—the first collection scene is a gauntlet of pain—but the real misery doesn’t begin until middle-aged Jo Min-soo appears at Lee’s doorstop, insisting she’s the mother who abandoned him decades earlier. Apparently intent on making up for lost time, the woman persistently endures the young man’s increasingly appalling abuse, until flashes of long-dormant humanity begin to pass over his stony features.
There are some hefty twists lurking in Pietà’s second half—none as surprising, though, as the moment when this excessively glum and single-minded movie somehow picked up the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice International Film Festival. (It beat out The Master, among other superior options.) Outraged cinephiles used the surprise victory as occasion to renew their objection to Kim, who’s a more talented and ambitious filmmaker than his detractors admit. But Pietà rarely plays to his strengths; it’s like a dour, less stylized version of one of the violent revenge fantasies from Kim’s fellow countryman, Park Chan-wook. And though the title alludes to the iconic imagery of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus, the film’s Biblical parallels are muddled at best. For starters, how is Lee’s vicious enforcer a Christ surrogate? When he carves off a chunk of his leg and feeds it to Jo, is this an offering of transubstantiation, or just another of the filmmaker’s taboo-pushing stunts?
The performances, at the very least, are graceful. Allowing cracks of vulnerability to spread across his mask of indifference, Lee slowly transforms from scary cipher into desperate mama’s boy. Meanwhile, Jo endures her ordeal spectacularly, especially during a final crisis of conscience. Too bad both actors are stuck in a hollow provocation. Pietà may be all about the burden of debt—financial, spiritual, or otherwise—but it’s the audience that really pays a price.