PLOT: A vicious loan shark gets a visit from a woman insisting that she is the mother that abandoned him years before. As he and this mysterious stranger connect, he begins to realize that he must change the life that he leads no matter what the cost.
In the first few minutes of PIETA there is a bizarre suicide and a young man f*cking his pillow. Needless to say this is a strange world that writer/director Kim Ki-duk has created, one that presents a very dysfunctional mother-son dynamic. To say this is disturbing is an understatement, yet most of what makes it horrific is off-screen. There is very little gore, violence and no nudity, just the personal trauma that the characters suffer through. And that means every single person here. Dark and foreboding, this is a disenchanted take on the need for money and even the desire for love.
Lee Jung-jin is Kang-do, a cold and merciless loan shark. He has a tendency to leave these poor souls that cant pay the debt crippled in order to collect the insurance money. With a sort of angelic face, this demon in disguise feels no sympathy for those that owe him and his boss money - even taking into account the disturbingly high interest rates. There is very little to like about Kang-do. He is a monster that is heartless and cruel with not an ounce of understanding. This exploration of wealth and how devastating actually crippling someone for so very little money they owe is truly an ugly one. However, the depth of Kang-dos depravity seem to be very apparent when a woman claiming to be the mother that abandoned him thirty years ago shows up on his doorstep interrupting his unscrupulous life.
Min-soo Jo as Mi-sun is a complex and fascinating character. When she shows up in Kang-dos life she is insistent on being a part of it, even when he slams a door on her fingers during which she doesnt flinch or other more despicable things he does to try and drive her away. Her performance is shockingly good especially since she has only one previous credit before this. As a seemingly desperate mother searching for acceptance from her son, she gives this lost and lonely woman a quiet power. The relationship between these two actors is an interesting one that grows throughout the film.
To say that Kang-do is unlikable is a massive understatement. This sadistic and sad character is motivated by such a fierce disgust for the people he destroys that he never warrants any sympathy. Even as he begins to change with the help of this strange woman, it is almost impossible to fully connect to him. Credit must go to Lee Jung-jin for this as he commits fully to this contemptible human being. As the focus of the film, he portrays this anti-hero with a fiercely understated energy.
As this dysfunctional family reunion expands, layers begin to unfold and it is sometimes much too easy to see where the story is going. Even still without a compassionate leading character yes, even the mom is hard to feel much sympathy for PIETA is able to draw the viewer in. And while the film pulls away when it comes to graphic material, the emotional punch is definitely intense. In many ways it is much deeper than if they had showed the violence in all of its grisly detail. There is a real sense of bitterness and disgust in this very grim portrait of humanity.
As well-crafted as this South Korean film may be, there are a few moments that create a slight sense of unintentional humor. Some of the acting aside from the two leads isnt as strong as it should be and the constant slapping gets a little out of hand of course that may just be something that gets lost in translation. The story itself is a chilling one which as emotionally intense as it is, it is near impossible to feel anything positive for these characters. Thankfully as a character study and even as a thriller, PIETA creates an uneasy sense of dread heightened by the two terrific leads.