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Movie review: Pieta

Posted 7:15pm on Thursday, May. 30, 2013

Unrated (violence, sex, strong language, mature themes); 104 min.

South Korean cinema has made great strides in recent years, establishing a reputation for darkly provocative and violently visceral films that seem at odds with the country’s industrious, Asian tiger reputation. Nowhere is that more true than in the latest from director Kim Ki Duk, Pieta, the first Korean film to win the Venice Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Lion Award.

Set in a rundown district near central Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon area, where the wonders of the Samsung economy seem to have passed everyone by, it centers on a thug, Gang Do (Jeong Jin Lee), who makes a living as an enforcer for a local loan shark. But he doesn’t just threaten the struggling businessmen who are his boss’s stock-in-trade, nor does he kill them if they don’t pay. Instead, he maims them — a crushed hand or leg will do — to collect the insurance money. Debt cleared, case closed.

Gang Do’s life has settled into a dull, if vicious, routine until a strange woman, Mi Son (Min Soo Jo), shows up claiming to be his mother. It turns out Gang Do never knew his parents and as Mi Son ingratiates herself into his life, giving him someone to care about, it begins to affect his work.

There are many genuinely disturbing moments in Pieta (named after the famous Christian works of art where Mary weeps over the body of Jesus), a couple of which conjure up the word “Oedipal.” While the worst of the violence may be offscreen, there’s such a sense of dread and tension that the intensity of those scenes is magnified.

The film’s big reveal may not come as that much of a surprise; you may figure out where it’s going well before the end. But it’s the getting there that is, if not exactly fun, then certainly hypnotic.

In Korean with English subtitles

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