Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Mother, May I?": Pietà

Lee Jung-jin stars in Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà

At the start of Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà, which generated headlines and won top prizes when it played at the Cannes, Venice, and Berlin Film Festivals, the central character, a professional sociopath named Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), wakes up in his squalid home, masturbates, staggers into his bathroomwhose floor is littered with entrailsand shaves. Then he leaves, after yanking a knife out of the wall, where it’s embedded in a drawing of a woman. For anyone who has seen some of the other Kim Ki-duk pictures that have played in this country but have fallen out of touch with his work in the last several years, this blandly presented procession of transgressive weirdness will feel like the director holding out his arms and crying, “Welcome back! The place is pretty much just like you left it.” Kang-do works as an enforcer for a loan shark, shaking down people who can’t pay their debts and mutilating them so they can collect on their insurance claims. With his baby fat, glaring eyes (with a hint of eyeliner), and mop of spiky, tousled black hair, Lee Jung-jin suggests an awkwardly grown-up version of the kind of child actor who gets cast as Damien the baby antichrist or one of the kids who inhabit the Village of the Damned.

This, it turns out, is a sly and witty bit of casting, one that puts a spin on the film’s conceptual themes. But it’s also a little deadening. Kang-do isn’t one of those exuberant, charismatic movie thugs, like Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death or Malcolm MacDowell in A Clockwork Orange, whose enjoyment of inflicting mayhem makes him so much fun to watch that the audience is implicated in his brutality. Kang-do is joyless and businesslike, despite the fact that he’s brutal beyond the call of duty: when, late in the picture his boss appears, the boss calls him on the carpet. “I told you to collect money, not make them cripples,” he barks. It wouldn’t be altogether surprising if those entrails in Kang-do’s bathroom were human in origin, but they’re not; apparently, the part of the city he lives in is abundant in free-range chickens, and after mauling his latest victim, he’s seen stumbling home and ineffectually trying to catch his dinner. Then an attractive, middle-aged woman with a pained, searching expression catches the chicken and holds it out to him. The puzzled expression on the chicken’s face is the most spontaneous, least over-determined thing in the movie, which is probably why it’s about the most genuinely memorable thing in it.

Lee Jung-jin and Jo Min-su in Pietà
The woman (Jo Min-su) presents herself to Kang-do as his long-lost mother, and when he’s beating a man, she takes the blame for what he’s become, saying that he wouldn’t be this way if she hadn’t abandoned him. (Then the battered man stretched out on the ground yells that Kang-do will burn in Hell, and Mom gives him a kick in the head. It’s one thing to say it when you’re family but…) It takes Kang-do a long time to come around to believing that she might be telling the truth, and it also takes him a while to warm to the idea that having a mother might even be desirable. While he’s processing this, he rapes her, first reaching between her legs and asking, “Didn’t I come from here? I’m going back in!” But in good time, he melts, and as he and Mom become inseparable, going on outings together and enjoying a taste of the happy childhood he was denied, his violent streak also melts away. There’s an obvious sick joke in the sight of this thug grinning like a kid at a street fair, happy to be with his Mom, but Ki-duk must have wondered if it was obvious enough; just to be sure nobody fails to grasp the unhealthiness of the situation, he also has Mom comforting her troubled boy by giving him a hand job.

I used to follow Kim’s movies when he had his vogue in the early-to-mid-aughts, with such pictures as The Isle, 3-Iron, and the atypically un-pervy Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring. I often didn’t know what the hell he was trying to get at, but the combination of his striking, intense images and his low, meditative rhythms made for a dreamlike experience, and it was possible to get sucked in and imagine that something personally meaningful and emotionally complex was roiling beneath the glacial surface. But I got off the boat after the 2006 Time, which had more striking images (and more of his tortoise-like pacing), but suffered from a disadvantage: the story, about a girl who is so afraid that her boyfriend will get tired of her that has her features remade through plastic surgery and tries to reignite their relationship with herself in the guise of a different person, was just comprehensible enough that it was hard to ignore how tired and banal its ideas about self-image and self-destructiveness were.

Eventually Pietà reveals itself to be a conventional thriller with a conventional third-act twist, and the film collapses. Partly because it will beyond the capacity of most viewers to actually care about Kang-do, even when the script demands it, the film's story isn’t strong enough to survive the transition from the higher aesthetic mysteries (what does all this mean?) to predictable, fish-hook narrative mystery (here’s who she really is and what she’s up to). The widespread acclaim for Pietà shows that there’s an audience that can more easily respond to Kim’s visual poetry when they get it in a film with obvious meanings they can map out, but his meanings are so heavily and obvious herehaving to do with the evils of capitalism and the nature of the parent-offspring bondthat you can hear the “thud!” every time another victim of society laments his lot in life or another parent decries the scars that his own mistakes or Kang-do’s misdeeds have left on a child. And the fact is that, in keeping with the ugliness of his story and setting, Kim’s visual poetry is pretty brackish here. Narrative clarity has been a hard-won accomplishment for him, but that doesn’t automatically mean that it does him any good.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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