We begin with Scott Tobias at the AV Club: “For a stretch in the mid-’00s, Kim Ki-duk rattled off a few great or near-great films—Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, 3-Iron, and Time, specifically—that signaled a maturing style, a willingness to temper the sexual provocation of earlier efforts like The Isle and Bad Guy with a more measured and curious take on human relationships. But Pieta feels like a step backwards, a crude tale of revenge that plays like A Christmas Carol if Scrooge was a young debt collector who crippled deadbeat machinists for the insurance money and a mysterious older woman claiming to be his mother was The Ghost of Beatings Past.”
“The divide in his work, in the style and content of one film to the next, is often so sharp that it is hard to believe that they are the works of the same man,” writes Twitch‘s Todd Brown. “At one extreme there are films marked by a harsh nihilism, pictures driven by anger and degradation. And at the other end there are contemplative, peaceful works—films that, while they acknowledge that the world is a dark place, find beauty and hope in human fragility. With his 18th film, Pieta, Kim attempts something new. He fuses the poles together. But make no mistake, there is no middle ground to be found here, the extremes in no way cancel one another out; instead, both live in a sort of uneasy balance.”
Giving Pieta a C+ at the Playlist, Oliver Lyttelton sets it up for us: “In an industrial area of Cheonggyecheon, South Korea, slated for immediate redevelopment, Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a loan-shark, working for a company that charges ten times the borrowed sum in interest. If their clients don’t pay up, Kang-do cripples them, using the insurance payments on their injuries to make up the difference. It’s a lonely, brutal gig, but Kang-do, who has no family, seems to actively enjoy it. One day, however, he’s confronted by a mysterious, strange woman, Mi-sun (Cho Min-soo), who claims to be his long-lost mother, apologizing for abandoning him at birth. Initially shunning her, he eventually lets her into his home, and the two attempt an uneasy, uncomfortable (mostly for the audience…) relationship, which starts to prick Kang-do’s conscience regarding his profession. But given the number of people with grudges against him, is finally making a connection with someone putting himself, and her, at risk?”
The “gritty, urban setting and thoughtful engagement with themes of revenge, sacrifice and redemption harks back to films like Bad Guy (2001) and Samaritan Girl (2004),” finds Variety‘s Leslie Felperin. “Displaying a confidant brio here that just about justifies the pic’s self-aggrandizing description in the opening credits as ‘Kim Ki-duk’s 18th film’ even before the title comes up, there’s also evidence in Pieta of Kim developing as an artist and mellowing as a person. The final reel packs a genuine emotional wallop, even as it makes auds laugh with the vicious precision of its dramatic irony.”
For Screen‘s Dan Fainaru, that ending “leaves a bitter aftertaste of inescapable misery and at the same time constitutes a fierce anti-capitalist manifest denouncing money as the ultimate evil perverting us all.”
Pieta is a “sickeningly violent film that unexpectedly segues into a moving psychological study,” writes Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter. For John Bleasdale, writing at CineVue, the film constitutes “a truly remarkable statement.”
Pieta has screened in Competition in Venice and will be part of the Masters program in Toronto.
Updates, 9/15: “I will confess to having momentarily flirted with the idea that Kim Ki-duk might not be completely irredeemable.” That’s Michael Sicinski, one of thirteen reviewers Cinema Scope unleashes on Pieta. And they show as little mercy as, to hear them tell it, Kim does to his audience.
“Recent Korean cinema, both within and outside of the thriller form, has bred a curious sub-genre,” notes Guy Lodge at In Contention: “studies of older women attempting to renegotiate their sons’ violent legacies. Bong Joon-ho’s far richer and even more frenziedly operatic Mother will be an obvious point of comparison for many; Lee Chang-dong‘s opalescent character study Poetry less so, but Pietà archly shares with both films an interest in the mutation and occasional consistency of personal sin across the generations…. What’s hardest in Pietà to reconcile with the widespread gasps of admiration (and, of course, the Golden Lion) that greeted it on the Lido is the rampantly grubby ugliness of the whole thing. Shot in particularly mangy digital, with compressed compositions that lend every set the appearance of a moderately outsize matchbox bit with a bare bulb, it emphatically opts out of the technical bravado wielded by extravagantly grim peers like I Saw the Devil; you’d say Kim was extending his flirtation with vérité if the plotting weren’t so large and so shrill. Nasty is as nasty does, and this lurid if aspirational potboiler does its thing, but the camera could have been let in on the joke.”
But for Mary Corliss, dispatching to Time, “The spare poetry of the cinematography and Lee’s and Cho’s fearless performances complement Kim’s searing portrait of love and hate, in a capitalist society so unforgiving that it takes down mothers and sons alike.”
“Pieta proves that the intrusion of inescapable guilt can have a more brutal impact than any act of violence.” An A- from indieWIRE‘s Eric Kohn.
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