Pieta (Day 42)


My Opinion: 2.9 || There are movies I’ve disliked more. I just can’t remember what they are.

TITLE: Pieta
DIRECTOR: Ki-duk Kim
LANGUAGE:  Korean | COUNTRY: South Korea
YEAR: 2012
PROFILE: Drama | 104 minutes | IMDb (7.1)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of Northwest Film Center): Lee Kang-do works as a brutal, merciless loan shark who threatens and cripples those who can’t make their payments. One day, a woman appears on his doorstep claiming to be the mother who abandoned him as a baby. At first he rejects her but eventually quits his job to spend his days recapturing the time lost with her. When she is kidnapped, he must track down the culprit, revisiting all those whom he has hurt in the past, only to discover that his mother is harboring a dark secret of her own. Taking his inspiration from Michelangelo’s Pietà, Kim’s searing, violent meditation probes the depths of human suffering as it explores the themes of guilt and revenge with gripping beauty.

Strengths That Critics Found: Many intelligent, accomplished critics have liked Pieta. It won the Venice Film Festival. Michael Mann presided over the jury and said that the film seduces you viscerally. Deborah Young said in the Hollywood Reporter that it’s a moving psychological study. Leslie Felperin in Variety detected the presence of wit and moral complexity, and Oliver Lyttelton, writing in IndieWire, was able to locate tenderness.

Conclusions: First, don’t ever try to seduce Michael Mann. Second, Deborah Young’s definition of “moving” is different from mine. And I think too her definition of “psychological” and “study.” Possibly also her definition of “a.” About the findings of wit and moral complexity, I’m at a loss — the film isn’t just ugly, it’s stupid as well.


Strengths That I Could Find: Kim does make attempts, inept though they are, at being profound. So the film isn’t completely misanthropic. And the camera work is fine. And the sets are okay.

Weaknesses (Part 1), The Viewing Experience in Stages:

— Okay, this violence is really unpleasant. But it’s probably necessary.

— I don’t believe this woman as his long-lost mother. At all.

— Wait, he’s not really going to do that. Yeah. He is.

— She’s eating what?

— Is this meant to be moving?

— Okay, yuck.

— That’s all it took to transform him?

— No, this can’t possibly be the twist.

— It’s happening, it’s really happening.

— Wait, so the invalid woman managed to follow . . . oh who cares?

Weaknesses (Part 2), Deeper into the Dumbness . . .

From the moment the mother shows up, her behavior seems wrong. Not psychologically convincing at all, and the false notes accrue. But then we learn that it’s all a trick. See, she’s the mother of a man Kang-do crippled (who then killed himself). It’s all an elaborate scheme. What better way to get revenge on your son’s killer than by allowing him to rape you and then feed you amputated body parts? Then you can cripple defenseless men together and make cute balloon animals and massage his genitals. All in order to gain his trust. So that he’ll be sad when you kill yourself.


No human would behave this way. No sane human, no unbalanced human, no breathing human. It would not happen. This is not moral complexity, and these are not painful but important truths. These are a filmmakers ugly and unbelievable contrivances.

At the end our protagonist comes to the shattering insight that it’s bad to cripple people for money. So he decides to make amends to the one victim who happens to be pretty. The solution is to kill himself in a way that’s both gruesome and guaranteed to get her into trouble with the police. Kim seems convinced that this is profound.

Reluctant Comment About South Korean Films: Not sure what to say here. This is now my third South Korean film that’s all about a women’s maddening, dysfunctional, masochistic devotion to her real of sort-of son. (For more, see my comments about Mother.) Three different directors — so many unsettling similarities. There’s even a creepy sameness in the women’s performances: you have to appear meek a lot of the time; you need to have a forlorn, far-off expression; you need to be ready to debase yourself at any moment. Young men are exclusively depicted as pitiful weaklings or despicable sociopaths. But it’s worse for the women, and not just the mothers. Every significant female character in these movies exists solely to suffer. I don’t know what to make of it.


Worst Moment: Man lying on ground with shattered leg, miserably pleading. Screams an insult Kang-do. While Kang-do isn’t even paying attention, the mother seethes, “Don’t insult my son.” Then repeatedly stomps on his leg. unmoved by his screams of agony. Given what we’re supposed to believe about the mother, I defy anyone to defend this as remotely credible.

File Under: violent, grisly, ridiculous