Golden Lyin'

(South Korea, 104 min.)
Written and directed by Kim Ki-duk
Starring: Cho Min-soo, Lee Jung-jin.
Cho Min-soo as Mi-sun. Courtesy of Mongrel Media
The press notes for Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta begin with the following note, which appears on a page unto itself thus stressing its overall significance in the grand scheme of the film:

‘Pieta’, meaning ‘pity’ in Italian, is an artistic style of a sculpture or painting that depicts the Virgin Mary sorrowfully cradling the dead body of Jesus. The Virgin Mary’s emotions revealed in ‘Pieta’ have represented the countless pains of loss that humans experience in life that are universally identifiable throughout centuries. It has been revived through master artists such as Michelangelo and Van Gogh.

This little blurb adds an extra spot of disappointment to Pieta, for it implies that the film truly did aspire to higher meaning. Pieta doesn’t really say anything, although Kim uses the motif of loss, especially between mothers and sons, to create a bleak portrait of the human experience. Kim Ki-duk certainly isn’t Michelangelo or Van Gogh, though, despite whatever the tastemakers at prestigious international film festivals might tell you.

Pieta landed on the film circuit last year amidst a swarm of controversy. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it received generally favourable reviews, but brought no sort of excitement to match some of the fest’s more popular pics. Pieta was then crowned best of the fest after a contentious awards jury passed over Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and gave it the Golden Lion instead. Venice, like Cannes, rules that a film cannot be awarded the Best Film prize if it’s receiving another top prize from the jury, and The Master was already tipped to win Best director for Anderson and Best Actor honours for Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. (The same rule at Cannes prompted the jury to make the better decision of awarding the Palme d’or to both the director and to the stars of Blue is the Warmest Color, rather than have only one or the other get a decent shout-out.) Critics cried foul, Pieta was deemed unworthy, and Venice looked so silly that it might as well have given the Golden Lion to Brian DePalma’s Passion.

Pieta therefore enters its theatrical release without a snowball’s chance in hell for finding a decent reception. Pieta has the misfortune of finding itself in a double jeopardy of expectations, for it brings the high standards that come with the endorsement of a major film festival win, as well as the novelty of a resounding backlash that it was wholly undeserving of the prize. One then goes into Pieta hoping to see either a masterpiece or an indefensible piece of trash.

The disappointment is that Pieta is neither. It's not good enough or original enough to merit the top prize from a festival on the calibre of Venice (or from any festival, for that matter), but it's not bad enough to warrant an all-out pan, either. Pieta is just a run-of-the mill revenge thriller with an icky Oedipal vibe and a penchant for shock value. Everything it offers has been done before in better films, and the much ballyhooed sex and violence isn't graphic or depraved enough to induce vomiting or applause from audience members expecting to lose their lunches.

Most of the naughty bits actually occur outside the frame. Kim favours off-screen violence leaves the audience with gross sounds and painful reaction shots. Pieta is essentially a timid film for the expectation of Asian extremism connoted by many of the negative reviews, although the scene in which the son forces his mother to eat a piece of his flesh and then proceeds to rape her is in a league of its own for cringe-inducing tastelessness.

The mother-son cannibalism is the most gruelling depiction of sacrifice and loss in Pieta, but it’s a misfire of Biblical proportions if Kim aspired to the lofty classical artistry referred to in cultural tidbit mentioned above. The story of the mysterious woman, played by Cho Min-soo, who calls upon her moneylender son, played by Lee Jung-jin, has the added resonance only if one reads up on the film after seeing it. (Pieta is the kind of film that probably benefits greatly from a post-screening Q&A.) The actual storyline of Pieta, if one can call the nonsensical string of call-and-response vendettas a story at all, is rather flat and hollow. It’s shallow miserablism for its own sake.

Pieta has a tangy air of ambiguity, though, for Kim’s atmosphere often has a sense of impending doom. It could be the feeling that the plot seems to meander or that the production looks as if it was shot in a haphazard moment of passion and then hacked in the editing room with a machete. On the other hand, the murky atmosphere of Pieta evokes the sense that the drama plays out in a crypt, rather than the slums of the Cheonggyecheon area of Seoul, so some inkling of Pieta’s Biblical aspirations could be found in a careful analysis of the setting as a contemporary cesspool of poverty and suffering.

Cho, meanwhile, is a revelation as the mysterious mother, who often masks her sinister motivation behind a single tear. The power of the performance, though, is often suffocated by Lee’s flat screen presence, plus the overall vapidity of Kim’s disjointed production, so it’s hard to believe the symbolism behind the film’s schizophrenia. Pieta reads like a film that was branded with a thesis that was conceived in post-production and held sway through the power of auteurism. As an overall film experience, however, Pieta amounts to little more than self-indulgent necrophilia.

Rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Pieta is currently playing in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox.