Movie Review: Pieta (M18)

A cold and heartless man, Gang-do (Lee Jeong Jin), is one day confronted by an older woman, Mi-son (Jo Min-soo) (both characters pictured above), who shows up claiming to be his mother.

Pieta (M18)

104 minutes/Saturday and Sunday at Cathay Cineleisure Orchard (3.5/5)

The story: Gang-do (Lee Jeong Jin), a knee breaker for a debt collection agency, has a perm on his head and a hole where his heart should be. His particular cruelty is to force debtors to sign an insurance policy that pays on permanent injury, then breaks one of their limbs. One day, an older woman, Mi-son (Jo Min Soo), shows up at his door claiming to be the mother that abandoned him as a baby.

South Korean writer-director Kim Ki Duk is a polarising figure and this is his 18th work.

In two screenings organised by the Singapore Film Society, viewers will get to view this work in a downtown cinema rather than in a museum or arts centre screening room.

This more comfortable setting might persuade those aged 18 and older (in an apt coincidence) to see why his audiences at European festivals go pale, boo, hiss, walk out and retch - and also cheer madly and shower him with prizes.

This tale of a man-beast and the mysterious older woman has elicited both extremes of reactions.

More than a few critics see it as devoid of any merit, artistic or human, while Kim's hometown backers made it South Korea's official entry to this year's Academy Awards in the Foreign Language category (it failed to be nominated).

It won the highest prize of the Golden Lion at last year's Venice International Film Festival. This work is the director at his best, or worst, depending on your view, and showcases his tropes: Animals are shown being hurt and dying; a woman is sexually humiliated in a near-rape situation; various high-minded notions of fate, redemption and sacrifice are illustrated with scenes of casual cruelty that will leave you gasping.

The setting is a grimy, hardscrabble part of the city in which owners of small, financially failing machine shops are one by one falling prey to predatory money-lenders. Gang-do (Lee) is employed by one such Shylock, whose modus operandi is to jack up interest rates to the point where the debt becomes unpayable.

The impassive, robot-like Gang-do forces the machine shop owner to employ his own presses and drills as limb-manglers so as to grab the insurance payout.

There is plenty here that screams of arthouse provocation, of the film-maker giving the middle finger to mainstream cinema.

But it is also lyrically shot and paced, and crammed with haunting ideas and images.

It is also pungently, unapologetically Korean: the grease of the machine shops, the smell of frying eel and kimchi, the braying boorishness of the bluecollar types and their fatalism are all palpable.

Kim knows and loves his working-class milieu - that is, when he is not torturing its denizens.

Go to the Singapore Film Society website,, for screening details and its Facebook page,, for a ticket giveaway.