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(Movie Review) Kim Ki-duk's 'Pieta' films dark side of capitalism
By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, Sept. 5 (Yonhap) -- "Pieta," a bruising but wisely-woven drama by master director Kim Ki-duk, plainly shows how money can destroy humanity and create hellish interpersonal relationships.

   The film opens as a thick chain is lowered from the ceiling. A young man in a wheelchair hangs himself by tying the chain around his neck, and that is the beginning of the tragedy.
Then the unlikely protagonist Gang-do (Lee Jung-jin) appears, a lonely and brutal man working as a debt collector for a loan shark. He cripples clients if they cannot pay their debts by cutting their hands with a machine or pushing them off high buildings to use the insurance payments for their injuries to make up the difference.

   One day, this diabolical man is visited by a mysterious woman, Mi-sun (Jo Min-soo), who claims to be his long-lost mother, apologizing for abandoning him at birth. The man, who has been living for 30 or more years with no family, believing he was abandoned by his parents, initially tries to shun her, treating her harshly. But gradually slipping deep into the mother-son relationship, Gang-do recovers his humanity. Then Mi-sun suddenly disappears and Gang-do is confronted with an enormous secret.

   The title "Pieta" gives the false impression that the film is about trying to find meaning in life through religion. Director-writer-producer Kim, instead, cleverly borrows imagery from Christianity. For instance, the camera repeatedly focuses on a red cross glowing at night on top of a church, so close to where Gang-do lives in Seoul's industrial area of Cheonggyecheon that he can see it whenever he opens a window in his room. The film also alludes to images of Jesus Christ bleeding on a crucifix and the Virgin Mary grieving over her dead son.

   The red cross and new high-rise buildings surrounding the area are in stark contrast to the dark and dilapidated back alleys of the area where Gang-do and most of his clients dwell, showing how hellish this extreme capitalist society is, since people believe money is everything.

   In this human jungle where the winner takes all, Gang-do cannot survive without resorting to violence. The victims -- mostly owners or employees of small-scale industrial workshops teeming with machinery -- curse Gang-do for his merciless deeds, with one couple exchanging abusive language as they blame each other for taking the high-interest loan.

   Starting in the second half of the movie, the revenge switches positions between those who harm others, including Gang-do, and his victims. Although employing no direct physical violence, the revenge on Gang-do is unimaginably cruel and harsh. He then comes to realize how he destroyed other people's lives.

   The director shows that endless human greed can turn the world into a living hell, and all of us may have played a role in driving downtrodden individuals to suicide, even unintentionally, as they compete with others to take more of the pie.

   In many ways, the film is excellent in effectively delivering that message. It is too dry and rough, however, like a documentary film, with occasional zoom-in and hand-held camera work and almost no music. The movie also does not have sophisticated and sensitive scenes that shined in his previously internationally acclaimed works, "Samaritan Girl," (2004) "3-Iron" (2004) and "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring" (2003).

   The abrupt change of Mi-sun from a self-proclaimed mother who initially keeps following Gang-do with sad looks to the incarnation of revenge in the second half is unrealistic. It is hard to imagine how an ordinary woman could perform acts of deception rivaling a professional actress, without being an actual actress.

   "Pieta," the 18th film of the prolific director, opens in local theaters on Sept. 6.