Last Saturday night I went to a movie theater near my house to watch “Pieta,” the winner of the top Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.
It’s a small cinema with fewer than 200 seats. I found a few dozen people in the theater and luckily no one sat beside me ― a perfect setting for me to concentrate on the movie. I loathe being distracted by the munching sound of people eating popcorn or other snacks by those sitting next to me.
“Pieta” by Kim Ki-duk is currently faring well, drawing more than 400,000 viewers at theaters across the nation, compared to other art movies by the director, capitalizing on high appraisals from overseas.
As the movie started, I became a bit nervous because I know I should brace for some hard-to-watch gory scenes, one of the trademarks of Kim’s films.
The film was shot within the small machinists’ shops clustered around Cheonggye Stream in central Seoul. These marginalized machinists ― portrayed as the victims of urban redevelopment projects ― struggle to survive amid falling orders and dwindling margins.
Many of them cannot make ends meet and end up relying on a loan shark who shows no mercy. Their debt snowballs with exorbitantly-high interest rates charged by the private moneylender.
To retrieve the loans, Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), the debt collector of a loan shark, forces borrowers to sign insurance policies payable to his boss in the event of the debtors sustaining injuries.
To collect insurance money, Kang-do (meaning robber in Korean) brutally breaks the arms and legs of indebted machinists by casually pushing them off buildings or forcibly putting their arms into a grinding machine, crippling them permanently.
His restroom is strewn with the bloody intestines of animals he consumes ― scenes that show he is cold-blooded and merciless. He is inhumane.
Director Kim often shows extreme scenes of violence to portray the main protagonist as a character for who no-one can feel sympathy. But this is not an overstatement of what’s actually happening in the real world. His camera lens zooms in on the dismal realities faced by the alienated in society and captures the sufferings of social underdogs.
As the title “Pieta” implies, the movie is about redemption, healing, loss and sacrifice. Kang-do, who grew up as an orphan, is not only a criminal but also a victim created by this society. He was driven by his boss ― a symbol of the evil side of capitalism ― to become such a monstrous loan collector.
However, Kang-do eventually becomes sympathetic toward the victims he cripples. But this is only after he meets a woman who claimed she was his mother (Jo Min-soo). She is the medium who helps Kang-do feel as much pain as that which he inflicts on his victims. In the end, he repents of his vicious actions.
It was disturbing to watch the brutal drama of redemption and vengeance that centers around the mother and son against the backdrop of dismal machinists’ shops in the back alleys of the urban slums.
An outsider to the domestic film industry, director Kim continuously delves into the reality faced by those at the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder, laying bare the ugly side of capitalism that degrades humanity, enslaving people to money.
After the movie finished and the closing credits rolled, a woman in front of me, leaving her seat, told her friend that it was as if her whole body ached. I could understand what she meant because the movie also kept me tense, emotionally and physically.
Like his other works, the movie also has powerful images imbued with vivid primary colors ― especially the final scenes that leave lingering images.
Watching the movie is an uncomfortable experience. But it’s a reflection of the world in which we live ― there are many who are crueler than Kang-do and there are many more who live under worse living conditions than the machinists in the movie.
This relentlessly brutal drama poses some basic, existential questions such as why these inhumane elements are prevalent in society and what should be done to restore humanity.
The first thought that came across my mind after watching the movie was that the film deserved the top Venice nod. It is a well-made film that could excel in other international film competitions, with the superb acting of starring actress Jo adding luster to the movie.
Last week, the Korean Film Commission selected “Pieta” as Korea’s entry to the foreign film section of the 85th Academy Awards. The thought-provoking film surely stands a chance of becoming the first Korean movie to win an Academy Award early next year.