A curious thing happened as I watched “Pieta,” South Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s latest example of brash provocation: After being subjected to disturbing scenes of abject cruelty, rape and torture, my reactions shifted from squeamish revulsion to a reluctant yet growing appreciation for Kim’s thematic ambition.
As the film’s final, not-for-the-squeamish image faded to black, I could understand (with some reservation) why Michael Mann and his fellow jurors awarded “Pieta” the Golden Lion award at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
It’s never easy to reconcile disgust with appreciation (try testing yourself with a viewing of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo”), but doing so confirms that “Pieta” and its creator are forces to be reckoned with.
The title refers, of course, to images of the Virgin Mary mourning over the body of Jesus Christ. The suggestive impact of those and other, subtly inserted Catholic images provide a kind of validation and even sympathy for Kim’s gut-wrenching story about Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a loan shark’s brutal enforcer in a grimy, industrial pocket of downtown Seoul.
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Kang-do routinely tortures and disables destitute debtors to collect their insurance payouts, devoid of emotion until he encounters Min-sun (Cho Min-soo), a convincingly sincere woman claiming to be the long-lost mother who’d abandoned him as an infant. I won’t describe his initial, shocking response; suffice it to say he eventually believes her. For the first time in his life he feels loved — an unexpected complication for a monster who breaks bones for a living.
A clever plot twist adds another layer of complexity to “Pieta,” and there’s no denying that Kim and his actors are fully committed to their work. Kim’s extremity may be occasionally stomach-churning, but it can’t be written off as mere exploitation. There’s a method to Kim’s madness, for those who dare to discover it.