South Korea (104 mi) 2012 d: Kim Ki-duk
Senselessly appalling and repugnant throughout, this pathetically dreary film features overly brutal, utterly despicable human behavior from start to finish, yet it stupefying won the Venice Film Festival, which makes one wonder what else was in competition? Actually, this was not the initial choice, as while the speakers were at the podium announcing their awards, they initially awarded Best Film to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012). However, the festivities were interrupted from a live telecast when a festival official whispered something into the ear of the speaker, where Venice rules only allow any given film a maximum of two major awards, and The Master had already been issued Best Director and Best Actor, awarded jointly to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. So after a brief but embarrassing delay, the Jury, headed by American director Michael Mann, handed out the Golden Lion Best Film to Kim Ki-duk’s PIETA ("Venice Film Festival Jury Yanks Top Prize from 'The Master' (Exclusive)"). Other overlooked films at the fest included the latest from Harmony Korine, Takeshi Kitano, Brilliante Mendoza, also Marco Bellochio’s equally dreadful Dormant Beauty (Bella addormentata) (2012), Ulrich Seidl’s downbeat Paradise: Faith (Paradies: Glaube) (2012), Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2012), which had the critics thoroughly confused ("Terrence Malick's To The Wonder confounds Venice press"), but also the near brilliant 2012 Top Ten List #7 Something in the Air (Après mai), Olivier Assayas’s autobiographical account of the political slide after May ’68. Apparently the Italians held little interest in the French student movement, although in March of ’68 Italian students shut down the University of Rome for 12 days during an anti-war protest. Kim Ki-duk is one of the few directors to receive more praise abroad on the festival circuit than he does at home, as he’s never been embraced by Korean critics or audiences, and was attacked ferociously in the press by film critic Tony Rayns in a November/December 2004 Film Comment article entitled Sexual Terrorism: The Strange Case of Kim Ki-duk, claiming, among other assertions, that he’s a purveyor of gratuitous violence and misogyny purely for shock and that he “shamelessly plagiarizes,” something Western filmmakers quite commonly do. Largely self-taught, from a lower class background with no formal training in film, Kim usually focuses on marginalized characters leading morally questionable lives that seem to exist in a universe all their own.
What apparently captured the attention of the festival was the completely uncompromising aspect of the film, where at least on the surface, the film presents an artificially exaggerated view of a descent into a mercilessly brutal world that only exists in the world of movies, displaying a sadistically crude human quality that has come to be known as torture porn, where the audience is treated to endlessly repetitive sequences of sad and pathetic humans at the bottom of the food chain who are subjected to ruthless cruelty, where Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a collector for underworld loan sharks, and if the money is not there he savagely breaks bones, feeding arms and limbs into industrial machines, or cracking them himself, turning his victims into cripples in order to collect the insurance money needed to repay their debt, subjecting each individual to excruciating pain and a lifetime of dependency on others. This is shown in such a dispassionate manner, including all the desperate pleading followed by endless screams, that one quickly grows disgusted with having to sit through this nonsense. The picture of Lee Kang-do is a pathetic wretch of a man, someone with no scruples whatsoever, that trolls the bottom of this Hellish existence by terrorizing weak and thoroughly moronic creatures who would idiotically stoop to borrow money from such an inhumane brute that prowls the neighborhood inflicting nothing but pain. Out of nowhere, an older woman, Cho Min-soo, arrives at his door claiming to be his long-lost mother, apologizing profusely for abandoning him in childhood. At first he finds it ridiculous and throws her out, calling her an “Evil bitch!” But when she persists, he treats her with the same callous disregard he shows everybody else, viciously raping her on the spot. Despite her prolonged agonizing moans of despair, she doesn’t leave him.
Somehow this new mother in his life becomes an Angel of Forgiveness, pathetically sobbing her apologies, absolving him of all crimes, cleaning his house, buying him food, and regularly cooking for him. Her presence suddenly alters his mindset, where he worries about her and begins to depend upon her kindness. But she is more of an Avenging Angel, a kind of Satan in disguise complete with her own agenda, which sets him in an existential turmoil. Due to the relentless monotony of neverending brutality, the film bears a similarity to Mel Gibson’s dreadful THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), as both are mindless and nauseating films that are little more than sadistic displays of human torture. The problem here is the exaggerated tone, where every emotion is so over the top, where characters yell and scream at one another all the time, constantly bickering, calling each other names, making threats, carrying out their threats, screaming in pain, where the film is one long, continuously procrastinated revenge saga, ugly, grotesque, and mercilessly brutal. Lee Kang-do comes to personify the lowest form of human existence, evil incarnate. Some have suggested he’s supposed to represent the ruthlessness of capitalism, a heartless economic system that doesn’t care who it destroys, that hears no sympathetic pleas, but simply bulldozes and lays waste to people’s lives in a momentary frenzy of violent, catastrophic destruction, and then moves on to the next person. Others find meaning in the title, where the Pietà is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture by Michelangelo, a subject in Christian art depicting an all-forgiving Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus, the first of a number of Michelangelo sculptures with the same theme. Anyone who’s seen Kim’s SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER…AND SPRING (2003), where the director himself plays the part of a monk, knows his familiarity with Buddhism and reincarnation, where this overly simplistic parable of evil incarnate seems to suggest that even the lowliest, most despised and hateful creatures on earth have redeeming qualities, where their lives can earn redemption, if not in this life, then the next, much of it underscored by the Kyrie eliason (Lord, have mercy) section of a Catholic mass. The quietly poetic qualities expressed in the final few moments of the film offer a peaceful visual transcendence, completely at odds with the gruesome violence that comes before, where death chants in a state of perpetual darkness bring the film to a close.