Pietà (Kim Ki-duk – South Korea) 104 minutes
An opening title card to Pietà announces that this is Kim Ki-duk’s 18th film. Having watched it, the only question I can ask myself is ‘how has he been allowed to make films for so long?’ Pietà is a travesty of crassness, emotional short-cuts and the jejune conviction common to people who just aren’t as bright as they think they are – its title alone is the sort of gauche pretentiousness familiar from the international art world. None of this is terribly new in Kim’s work – his films have for years, with a few exceptions, been a dreary trawl through art-house sadism. Now he has started winning awards at major film festivals (Pietà won the Golden Lion at Venice – more of which later), which is likely to give a worrying imprimatur to his very inconsiderable oeuvre.
Pietà follows a sadistic (why of course) debt collector Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a man with seemingly no ties to society (Kim often addresses the inconveniences of social reality by ignoring it altogether). Lee Kang-do’s modus operandi is to make his debtors sign an insurance policy and then maim them, often using their own tools, himself recouping the dividend. Anyone with a passing familiarity with insurance companies (or has simply seen Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity) will find the credibility of this ruse quickly strained. But such factitiousness is par for the course in a Kim Ki-duk film.
One day, a woman, Jang Mi-sun (Jo Min-su) appears on Lee Kang-do’s doorstep, claiming to be his mother. His initial reaction is to rape her (ah, don’t you love the edginess of art school graduates?) but she hangs around and insists upon cooking for him and even following him around on the job and helping him out. She also manages to convince him that she is her mother, which doesn’t prevent him from cutting a lump from her leg, cooking it and making her eat it. It’s all pretty nasty stuff, embalmed in a general misanthropy that would make Michel Houellebecq, Larry Clark or Gaspar Noé blush. I could accept the misanthropy if it wasn’t executed in such an obviously cack-handed way. Michael Haneke is often accused by his detractors of engineering his scenarios in a laboratory, all the easier to infuse the work with his own disgust at his subjects and, by extension, humanity as a whole. It is not an accusation without foundation, but, compared to Kim Ki-duk, Haneke is very much an Organic misanthropist, a free-range miserablist. Nothing in Kim Ki-duk’s films rings true. Every scene, especially the ones of more wrenching violence, appear channelled directly from Kim’s unconscious. It’s a suffocating feeling to have.
So how did a film like Pietà win top prize at Venice? Well, it is not unprecedented for film festivals to reward bad films. By many accounts, Kim’s film was a compromise award due to festival rules forcing the Michael Mann-led jury to choose which awards to give to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which picked up best director and best acting awards. Anderson’s film was vastly overrated in my opinion, but would have been a far more worthy recipient than Pietà or most other films in what was generally a mediocre festival line-up. Kim Ki-duk has managed to fashion an international name for himself largely because he came to prominence at a time when South Korean cinema was gaining an international audience. Kim’s films straddle the divide between the outré violence of the likes of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho and the more contemplative films of Hong Sang-soo and Lee Chang-dong. That is probably enough to scramble the signals of critics and festival judges alike.