South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk’ 18th film, is a story set in the grim fringes of capitalism. A place where the working class never have enough and borrow heavily not just to survive, but often to reach for the capitalist fantasy that seems to be occurring for everyone else but them. It’s a world of narrow laneways strewn with rubbish, of run down apartments and cramped claustrophobic factories. It’s in this grim netherworld we find a debt collector making his rounds, impervious to the pleas of his victims, taking a cold sadistic pleasure in first humiliating then crippling his victims. It’s these unfortunates on the outer fringes of society driven to desperate acts that continue to fascinate Ki-Duk, a world he has charted in films as diverse as Address Unknown and Birdcage Inn, charting the desperation of those without hope, and finding both a savagery and humanity in the grime.
Yet lately he’ mellowed somewhat with 2004′ 3-Iron approaching a kind of whimsical beauty, a far cry from the savagery of Bad Guy or periodic brutality of the Isle. In Pieta, referencing Michelangelo’ famous sculpture, he seems to be marrying his two worlds. There are still a few difficult horrific and morally questionable moments -it wouldn’ be a Kim Ki-Duk film without them, but he’ definitely searching out loftier themes.
It’s a story about connection, or perhaps more succinctly it’s a demonstration of the impact of connection after a life spent alone. After a few particularly sadistic and brutal maimings our loan shark happens upon a women who follows him home and appears unfazed by his savagery. As she ingratiates into his life his perception of the world changes and his nihilism subsides. Yet like much of Kim Ki-Duk’ work there is a kick in the tail, where the unlikeliest and most unexpected connections occur despite the best intentions and the trauma of emotions are brought to the surface tearing others down. Does this sound vague? It’s purposely so because there’ a certain joy in the unexpected unravelling of the narrative, that any kind of warning would ruin. It reinforces the notion that Kim Ki-Duk is a singular filmmaker, but also how far he’ come in his previous 17 films. He was always idiosyncratic and a little bit brutal but he’ increasingly displayed a mastery over the cinematic form and Pieta is perfectly weighted.
It’s grim, at times savage and difficult to watch, but it’s also a tightly controlled potboiler that packs a punch. Kim Ki-Duk is a rare kind of filmmaker who has been allowed to pursue his own singular vision for just under two decades. He never adheres to genres or form, because his genre is himself. He’ one the few remaining auteurs out there, repeatedly creating minor masterpieces that could never be made by anyone else.