Tuesday, September 11, 2012

KOREAN MOVIES: My Dear Korea Review on Kim Ki-duk's Pietà

by MovieGoerK & ONSEMIRO

Director’s Statement
Money inevitably puts people to the test in a capitalist society, and the people today are obsessed with a fantasy that money can solve anything. Money is the problem for most of the incidents that occur today. In this film, two people who give and receive pain over money, unlikely to meet, comes across each other and become family. And through such family, we realize that we are accomplices to everything that occurs in our period. Money will ask sad questions until the people of this era die. Ultimately, we will end up becoming a[the] money to each other and grind ourselves on an asphalt. I again cry out towards heaven with a meager faith today. God, have mercy on us. (Link
Director Kim Ki-duk's latest (18th) film "Pietà" was world premiered at the 69th Venice International Film Festival (VIFF) as part of competition category and received 10-minute-long standing ovation from the audiences and critics. Many film reviewers deem that Kim is back, after a hiatus of several years from making commercial movies, to his old self and has proved his ability to use his signature magic to attract screen viewers to his new film.  A Variety review mentioned that the movie “offers up the director's vintage blend of cruelty, wit and moral complexity.” Kim’s unprecedented, unusual appearances on Korean TV entertainment shows made me think he’s changed and toned down his rhetoric but I was wrong; Kim is still the same Kim. Although the movie’s storyline is a little different from his usual formula as “Pietà” is more of psychological thriller, it still has the same extreme elements of his previous movies. And last Saturday (Sept. 8, 2012), the movie took the Golden Lion award for the best film; and the actress Cho Min-su was one of the stand-out contenders for the Volpi Cup for best leading actress. This was his fourth trip to the VIFF after screening "The Isle" in 2000, "Address Unknown" in 2001, and "3-Iron" in 2004.

Official Poster for Kim Ki-duk's 2012  Film “Pietà

"Pietà," the title of the movie, is an Italian word for pity, compassion, and mercy, which is associated with the Virgin Mary cradling and mourning over the dead body of Jesus, her son as seen in its official poster. There are two taglines included on its poster that respectively read "Have mercy (on us)" and "A man and a woman who will never be forgiven," which tell us much about the movie itself.  In an interview with Korea JoongAng Daily, Kim said he chose it in hopes of seeing some mercy for human beings, including him. Hence, the movie was obviosuly titled after Pietà, a masterpiece Renaissance sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Kim revealed on a Korean cable TV Talk Show, "People Inside” (aired on Aug. 23, 2012), he had visited St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City while backpacking around Europe in his early thirties. There he saw the masterpiece and was deeply impressed by the scene in which Mary holds the body of Jesus, her son, on her lap after the Crucifixion. Years later, the impression came back to inspire him to create a movie that fittingly tells of a man and a mother figure with an appropriately tragic twist in which a woman is so gracious yet so cruel and man is so unforgivable yet so innocent. Interestingly, when the word ‘Pietà’ is transcribed into Korean, “피에타,” it can translate to “burned by blood” (피에 타), which I think is a strong Christian indication that there is no true repentance or redemption without the blood of the Son, hopefully.

The film showcases the tragedy of an extremely capitalized society by depicting the story of a cold-blooded, brutal yet solitary henchman (Gang-do, which can also be interpreted as “robber” in Korean) for a merciless loan shark whose encounter with a mysterious woman leads him into confusion; she claims to him that she is his long-lost birth mother. Gang-do grew up as an orphan, hence has lived all his life with no family or loved ones to take care of him or for him to take care of. Accordingly, he has no fear or empathy thus any hesitation when carrying out his evil deeds. His brutal methods include having the debtors sign up for a disability insurance policy that guarantees cash compensation in the event of disaster. When they don’t pay their debts on time, Gang-do mechanically chops off their hands, or crushes them between gears of machines, or pushes them off the empty buildings to cripple them and collects the cash value from their insurance policies. He is an emotionless, brutal and cruel man cut out for his devilish job just like the loan borrowers cursedly call him “the son of devil” at the beginning of the movie. 

One day, a mysterious woman (Mi-sun) shows up in front of him, saying she is his long lost-mother. At first, he doesn't believe her as he has no memories of a mother in his life. Even though he shuns her, she continues to insist she abandoned him when he was a baby. To test her, Gang-do asks her to carry out some unthinkable, loathsome, and brutal deeds, one of which reminds me of the scenes near the end of Kim’s 2001 movie “Address Unknown.” (I'm not going to tell you what it exactly is to avoid spoilers for I really hope his movie attracts as many viewers as possible.)  And she does whatever he commands her. As his feelings of attachment to her deepen, he gradually lets her into his life and eventually decides to go straight once and live guilt-free. His new-found mother (or hope) helps this once-blank-faced, emotionless man experience mental shifts and find the inner emotions he has forgotten. This emotion called love (or innocence) enables him to open his eyes to a brave, whole new world.  At that very moment, his mother is missing (or presumably) kidnapped. Assuming that it would have been done by someone he hurt in the past, he begins to search for her, starting by tracking down all the people he has tormented. Eventually, not only does he face the most horrifying person, much worse than himself, but he opens a Pandora’s Box that contains the darkest secrets from her past and also his.

The setting of the movie is the old industrial slum at the heart of Seoul, Cheonggyecheon, which is full of shoddy, small machine shops and stores, populated by lower-middle-class machinists and hardware store owners. This slum area has remained the same for a long time and is going through major redevelopment. Modern skyscrapers are replacing these decaying, overgrown machine shops and stores in the middle of metropolitan city of Seoul. Such urban renewal projects are very common in Seoul nowadays, which most of the time will force the tenants of the houses demolished to pack and move to some remote areas outside of the city limits of Seoul because they can no longer afford the rent and the cost of living there. Those who try to preserve their old machine shops and stores will usually live in utter poverty already present in the area. In the movie, people living in this slum are so destitute that they are willing to inflict serious physical injury upon themselves for money.

In the second picture, you can see the overpass above Cheonggyecheon.
The overpass was demolished for the redevelopment.

Cheonggyecheon translates to the “Blue Stream” and refers to a small river or brook that flows about 4 miles right through downtown Seoul. The area used to symbolize an avenue for South Korean modernization and industrialization in the 60’s and 70s. During that period, it had a great concentration of machine and industrial shops where many small business people prospered and labor workers worked really hard for money. Including the commercial areas nearby, Cheonggyecheon transformed into a very prosperous and bustling commercial zone with a large base of potential customers. But time passed, things changed; the area experienced a steep decline. In the meantime, the workers were overworked and underpaid as small business profits suffered. They were meagerly getting by day to day by hard, “sacred” labor. However, as the Korean economy had increasingly come to depend on heavy financial maneuvering and asset bubbles, the residents and tenants of Cheonggyecheon were driven to the end of their rope and to utter poverty; and things got worse when the asset bubble burst and the once seemingly invincible economy went into a tailspin. Accordingly, as the vulnerable Cheonggyecheon area started declining fast, lots of commercial developers and rich investors were tempted to get rich off of redevelopment of the area.  

The movie makes a scathing attack on present-day South Korea by bringing to light some of the horrible and grotesque situations where the unwilling-to-give-in-by-an-inch greedy bankers and investors are preying on the poor loan borrowers suffering endless financial ordeals, which are excellently woven with the most pathetic and heart-wrenching story of a man and a woman. As the movie develops into a painful revelation, Gang-do undergoes some profound emotional changes: he once was emotionless and brutal but slowly becomes gentle yet desperate when seemingly desperate Mi-sun eventually turns out to be very cruel and iron-willed.  They are yet another duo that exemplifies the dual, Janus-like characters in Kim’s movies.  As he said on KBS’s talk show “Do Dream” (aired on Sept. 1, 2012) that black and white are the same color, he believes every person has evil and good inside of them and is capable of doing both good and bad things under certain circumstances and of having multiple feelings and emotions.

Korean film director Kim Ki-duk holds
the Golden Lion above his head.

Even though Kim is an art film festival favorite and respected auteur, especially in Europe, many South Koreans hate, disdain, and disrespect his movies as they frequently show the weak, dark underside of their society. Needless to say, though, he is an amazingly talented writer and director definitely with his own unique voice. The key elements of his movies are irrational, socially unacceptable and abnormal people and behavior, utter loneliness, dysfunctional human relationships, internal anger and frustrations, and cruelty. Nevertheless, “Pietà” is a little different from other movies of Kim’s as there are less repulsive, disturbing, or graphic elements that have characterized his movies. In other words, this movie features mellower, more mature, and much less sensational scenes and situations than most of his previous movies.  This time, he chose to use more universal thus convincing element in building the relationship between the male and the female protagonist, that is, motherly love that awakens the soul of the devilish henchman and makes him regain innocence.  Mi-sun’s motherly love for Gang-do is fake; it’s her creative, yet cruel and desperate way to get revenge on Gang-do.  She makes him feel loved for the first time in his life and ruthlessly breaks his heart by throwing him into an absolute emptiness. It turns out both have sinned against each other.  Kim said at a news conference:

"I think everybody who lives in these modern times is an accomplice and sinner; thus all of us should wait for the mercy of God." (Link)

And now, let’s talk about money, money, money.  Kim said at a news conference, “I feel that this movie in particular is a movie dedicated to humankind in a situation of a deep crisis in extreme capitalism. There are three protagonists (in the movie). The two actors and the third one is money.” (Link)  Hence the “money” translates to “capitalist materialism” here.  Obviously, the South Korean economy has achieved unprecedented, rapid economic growth over the past three decades, but there also has been a price to pay in terms of morality. En route to becoming an economic power from a war torn nation, materialism has become the predominant worldview in the Korean society. In other words, the cultural and institutional strengths indigenous to Korea have been the leading driving force of its economy but at the same time they have also created economic pariahs who are slavishly dedicated to right-wing “winner take all” capitalism. Such an undesirable phenomenon has become worse, after the bubble burst recently, with the dangerously growing economic disparity and social polarization.   

As  the South Korean society as a whole came to embrace and worship the capitalist materialism, the newly emerging upper- middle class aggressively sought to accumulate wealth without hard work or without caring about other people and the nature surrounding them. In the name of efficiency, the main engine of capitalist materialism, they started indulging in a culture of greed, indifference, and selfishness. The whole of humanity is now faced with a tragic dilemma, caused by the lack of respect for nature, the loss of human innocence, and the collective obsession with all that glitters; all these are the most offensive, abhorrent aspects of modern Korean society Kim Ki-duk has warned of in his movies.  People receive false, sinful pleasures and satisfactions from their deeds, which leads to anxiety, disillusionment, and suffering.  Kim said in an interview with Korea JoongAng Daily, "Things like money and fame cause hostility in human relations and in a small-scale, this results in a fight with your neighbors while in a bigger scale, this can mean war. I think in a way, all of us living at present are beings that need to seek mercy before God."

Lastly, there's a matter of salvation. A Korea JoongAng Daily article reports Kim said he views “religion, love, politics, philosophy and science, all as elements of human existence” and he doesn't limit himself to just one element in his films; he said, “Religion is so closely connected to humans and I think if anything, this element of existence should be expressed through love.  I think sex, in a way, is a prayer of sorts, so instead of dichotomizing the two [sexuality and religion] I think of the elements more as a singular chunk of our lives." (Click to read more.)  However, there's this part of the movie, one of the most controversial scenes from “Pietà” and I don't think it is about sexuality; rather, it’s Gang-do’s unconscious denial of his existence, i.e., his desperate attempt to erase himself from the world. (I'm not going to tell you what exactly happens to avoid spoilers; again, I really hope his movie attracts as many viewers as possible.)  Yet, the rest of their seemingly malicious and tempestuous, yet heart-wrenching and “redemptive” relationship unarguably suits his motives and intentions as he said at Venice (The Delta World):
“The embrace of Mary to his son dead, newly taken down from the cross, is for me the image of the pain, the suffering that is within all humanity. It’s a hug also share that pain and compression.”

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  1. The picture of the modern day Cheonggyecheon stream makes me miss Seoul terribly!!
    Great blog! I wish more Americans knew how amazing South Korea is.

  2. Danielle, I wish they did too. :)

  3. Greetings,
    I think your blog is really cool. This review of 'Pieta' is really thorough and gives great insight. Truly awesome writing!

    I first discovered Korean movies in my early teens, and I watched the movies that were available on DVD at that time. Good dramas like, "Memories of Murder", all Park Chan-wook movies up to "Lady Vengeance" (which had just been released) and "Brotherhood of War", and stuff like that, you know. At the same time I also got a hold of... well... in my opinion crappy action movies like "Shiri" and "A Bittersweet Life", and that "H" movie. I mean, those action movies are still better than most modern American ones, but still, you know... I was also watching HK-action movies at the time, too, so it was a mishmash of a bit of everything.

    Funny how Kim Jee-woon recently directed that American action movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger in it. Well, "I saw the Devil", despite its intense content dealing with repugnant killers, is essentially a pretty silly action movie, don't you think? So he's good at that stuff. :)


    Kim Ki-duk (and also the great Lee Chang-dong) came a bit later, but I fell in love with the movies immediately. I consider Kim Ki-duk to be a bit of a Korean Lars von Trier. I mean, I think it's out there that Kim Ki-duk is a pretty self-indulgent director, and you either hate his movies or like 'em, and same goes with LVT. Both directors also get to take a lot of shit for no real reason. It's easier to throw crap at directors because their view of the world is different, but harder to piss on modern day corruption because you're part of it, huh...

    I Like Kim Ki-duk's movies, and I think he's good at portraying the absurdity of modern human nature. I know I'm projecting and interpreting his movies in my own way, but sometimes they feel like metaphors for absurd human behavior. Like with that movie, "Sigan", when folks criticized it for being "unrealistic" because of how weird people behave in it... Well, isn't "Sigan" a good example of a feature that's a metaphor for absurd human behavior, and yet it's also a beautiful and poetic movie with a sort of theatrical quality to it. I think Kim Ki-duk's movies have theatrical qualities to them, like with "Spring, Summer, Fall Winter, Spring" which is set in one spot. in "Sigan", there's that cafeteria that seems to be the spot where all the drama constantly unfolds. It's like theater, in way. Or, sort of like theater...

    I think "Pieta" is a bit like that. Personally, I think it's one of the weaker of his movies, to be honest. However, I still think it manages to create a sickening atmosphere with its sharp imagery. This time, though, it's really that industrial setting that the audience get to see in frame, and the images tell a story more so than the "plot". I totally got the movie because the premise unveiled itself through those sharp images of the surroundings, and it all adds to the tone of the movie - I felt that the artistry managed to convey that bleak human existence in the world of the movie (and our lives).

    You review confirmed that I understood the thought behind the movie. So, thank you!

    I am digging deeper into Korean culture, thanks to these incredible movies. I am always worried about further economical collapse. Isn't "Mr. Vengeance" about that? I hope the soul of the people will prevail and find harmony. I wish for the Korean people to get through whatever challenges that may be ahead of them. I truly do.



    By the way... Do you know Okkyung Lee? She's awesome! Have you seen "Kisaeng becomes you"? She wrote the music for that play! It's on Vimeo. Pretty cool.


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