Welcome back Mr. Ki-duk (Bi-Mong, Soom). The once so prolific Sout-Korean director disappeared from the scene four years ago, but has now returned with a new full-length feature. His comeback hasn't gone by unnoticed as Pieta won the top prize in Venice (although the victory was somewhat contested). After having watched the film myself I can only confirm that honor was justified as Pieta sees Ki-duk returning to form (though a little different from his old self).
To say that Ki-duk disappeared completely would be incorrect. In 2011 he actually released two separate projects. First there was Amen, a shorter venture that led to Ki-duk's mental collapse, which was soon followed by Arirang, Ki-duk's documentary that retraced the steps leading to his own depression. Both projects received minimal international attention though and getting a hold of them is a rather daunting task. With that in mind, I think it's fair to say that Pieta is Ki-duk's first true release ever since he made Bi-Mong.
But Pieta doesn't just continue where Bi-Mong left off. Throughout his career Ki-duk has been fine-tuning his own particular style which ultimately resulted in a more dreamy, less edgy overall atmosphere. Not that he was mass-producing mushy dramas by the time he finished with Bi-Mong, but films like Bi-Mong and Soom did lack that dramatic "shock" value that characterized his earlier films. Even though many people often criticized Ki-duk for making films that are too similar to each other, comparing his first film with Soom shows you exactly how much Ki-duk changed his trademark style over the years. It may have been a gradual process, but the difference is clearly there. Pieta sets off to combine elements of both periods in his career. It has that gritty, unforgiving dramatic undertone of his older films, while coupled with a more stylish audiovisual approach.
The film starts with an average day in the life of Gang-do, a ruthless loan shark who does his own dirty work. He forces people to sign insurance policies and cripples them if they are unable to pay him back, running off with the money himself. Gang-do lives a solitary life, until one day a woman arrives on his doorstep. She claims to be his mother, the woman who abandoned him at birth. Gang-do isn't ready to accept her back in his life, but as it turns out she is quite persistent and she practically forces Gang-do to let her back in.
Pieta is visually grittier when compared to his previous films, but it's far from the random ugliness that defined his first few works. Ki-duk has a keen eye for color and composition and while he doesn't waste time to revel in visual beauty, the film presents a beautiful kind of ugly with enough attention to the color palette and framing. It's a nice balance that supports the drama while also leaving room for more cinematic delights.
The soundtrack is a true pleasure. Ki-duk chooses a more ethereal selection of tracks that contrast with the gritty visuals, but extract additional beauty from the dramatic bottom line. Even though there is plenty of pain and torment in Pieta, the soundtrack eases the blow just a little in between, though never during the film's more crucial scenes. A smart choice that helps to retain the balance between Ki-duk's older and more recent work.
The third pillar of Pieta is its extremely strong cast. Jeong-jin Lee excels as Gang-do and transforms into a character that is tough and merciless, yet still allows the audience to feel a slice of pity for his situation. But it's Min-soo Jo (Gang-do's mother) who takes the crown. Though not a true newcomer, her experience with starring in feature length films was minimal before she joined the cast of Pieta. Ki-duk is famed for forcing extremely intense performances from the lesser gods of acting and he affirms that status once again.
Even though Pieta is filled to the brim with Christian symbolism and the film emits a strong poetic beauty, it isn't exactly an easy watch for moderate arthouse frequenters. There are some genuinely shocking scenes and Ki-duk's characters are more than once found on the floor, screaming in agony. It's a film that hurts while you're watching, then again I believe that's one of Ki-duk's prime strengths that should be cherished.
I haven't read too many other Pieta reviews so far, so I'm not sure if the misogyny card has surfaced already, but I still would like to say a word or two about this (because Pieta sure has the potential). Indeed there is unmistakable violence directed at women in this film. Gang-do mistreats his mother in some of the worst imaginable ways possible, but in the end he does so because he's weak and powerless. Min-soo Jo is the only powerful individual in this film, headstrong and even more relentless in her own way. If anything, she symbolizes the strength and utter conviction that women have in them, more so than men who rely on that strength to survive.
Pieta is a pretty complete package. The film looks great, has a superb soundtrack, two extremely impressive leads and a boatload of symbolism for those who enjoy that kind of thing. On top of that it's an intriguing drama built on top of two enigmatic characters. It's everything I wish for in a Ki-duk film, which made me realize just how much I missed the guy these past four years. Here's to a great continuation of his career.