The 18th film from director Kim Ki-duk, Pieta is an unrelentingly tense and grim tale of family, blackmail, and, ultimately, revenge. The film centers around two main characters: Kang-do (Jeong-Jin Lee), a loan shark who is tasked with collecting money and interest from nameless industrial workers, often doing so by forcing them to sign insurance papers that then pay over the money when they are horribly injured, and Mi-sun (Jo Min-Soo), the woman that enters Kang-do’s life claiming she is his mother who abandoned him 30 years ago. Her entry into his life is a catalyst for change, forcing him to reevaluate his actions and who he is as a person.
The film takes place in the industrial slums of a Korean city where everyone seems to live a life of fear and misery, taking comfort in the small things that bring them what little joy they can find, such as a tender moment with their mother or a phone call where they find out the sex of their soon-to-be-born baby. Even the protagonist (if one is able to call him that) Kang-do lives an empty life. Completely alone and so starved for emotional and physical contact that he masturbates in his sleep, each day only holds for him the promise of inflicting pain and humiliation upon others. Jeong-Jin brilliantly portrays the obviousness that he takes no pleasure in his way of life, the weight of what he does a huge burden on his shoulders.
When Mi-sun (who is phenomenally depicted by Min-Soo) enters into the picture to repent for abandoning him, literally trying to force her way into his life, he is, obviously, skeptical and even highly aggressive to the idea at first. He yells at her, beats her, and sexually assaults her, all while trying to come to terms with the possibility that this woman could in fact be his mother. But as they begin to connect and build their relationship, there are some genuinely sweet and tender moments. However, these moments are haunted by the horrific moments that permeated the beginning of the film, making it impossible to truly enjoy the burgeoning love between a mother and son.
As their relationship grows, Kang-do begins to falter in his ability to do his work. He begins giving the borrowers second chances and ultimately quits being a loan shark. Things seem to be going well until a pivotal scene in which is mother goes missing. From here on out, each and every scene is filled with crushing tension as Kang-do goes on a mission to find his mother. I refuse to give away any more as what happens during the second half of the movie must be seen without outside influence or information for it to be as effective as the story warrants.
The film is shot in a manner that reflects the cold, dirty feel of the people and their environments. The camera matches the mechanical industrial movements of the tools with obvious zooms and edits. Through all of that, the film does not show gore or violence, letting the vast majority of these actions play out in the imagination of the viewer. The minimalist score also reflects the stark and austere living conditions of each character. A haunting moment occurs when Mi-sun is weeping uncontrollably and her cries fit perfectly into the soft melody that plays behind the scene, blending into the music.
What makes this movie so effective is that each scene builds upon the tension of the previous one. There is no hope. Rather, there is an unrelenting sense of grim despair that refuses to let up. Every time there is a chance for hope, for a single glimmer of light, it is quickly dashed away. Add to that the story and the heartbreaking, tragic ending, and Pieta ends up a film that will haunt you for days.