Kim Ki-duk is a director infatuated, if not obsessed, with the dynamics of human relationships under extreme circumstances. Their boundaries, dimensions, progressions, and compromises (or lack thereof) compose the many fragmented wholes in his work. 3-Iron (04) contrasts the prison of abusive married life with the weightless, open possibilities of two lovers joined by a common muteness. The Bow (05) concerns a 60-year-old male and a mute teenage girl juggling their multiple connections: as kidnapper/kidnapped, mentor/mentee, and sexual partners. Kim's stories and settings are told with a crisp, serene steadiness; his latest, Pieta, invokes a style as gritty and unstable as the story lying within—all in the name of the Lord.
Though the title and poster (a re-imagining of Michelangelo's statue of the same name) tease at a religious allegory, Pieta is far from your average scripture. With no room for hackneyed preaching or politics, the film's convoluted faith system is wrapped in a coarse, verité-style street drama, in which the modern city is a contemporary Golgotha, and sacrifice and persecution render ancient times and the present day indistinguishable. Characters find redemption through punishment, and seek truth through manipulation and mutilation.
Kim prefers his characters to speak more through deed than word; Pieta is led forth by Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a loan shark. He is the scourge of debtors (“the bastard was born evil,” one victim claims), humiliating industrial workers in front of their wives and mothers. His daily routine—cripple the debtors, kill livestock, eat livestock, masturbate, repeat—reveals no family life to speak of. It's almost as though by breaking the spirits of the workers' families, Kang-do is cruelly redirecting his own pain over lost kin against others.
That is, until a mysterious woman named Mi-sun (Jo Min-su) shows up claiming to be his mother. Following Kang-do home, she barges into his house to clean up the place, then falls to her knees, begging mercy from a man with none to give. As in Kim's previous films, a corrosive spiritual journey involving the pair commences. Mi-sun begins as a verbal punching bag for Kang-do, and becomes his sexual partner, companion, caretaker, mother, manipulator, and enemy, in rapid succession. Similarly, Kang-do transforms from ruthless mangler to man-child to vigilante in the same span of time.
As their relationship develops and Kang-do grows weary of his duty of stripping money from the impoverished, the film questions the importance of money and the finality of death, not unlike many religious allegories. But the film is less a parable than a harrowing character study, harshly examining two broken souls blossoming, only to be made lame once again. The ecumenical belief is that in death, the soul exits the body, but Kang-do has already forfeited his. A sense of emptiness pervades Lee's embodiment of a man who's simply given up. Mi-sun meanwhile is presented in a way meant to confound the audience. Is she to be trusted? Are we meant to look past her sweetness? The ultimate, perverse revelation of her true identity comes as little surprise, but it shows the extent of Kim's interest in the lengths to which people will go to please others and redeem themselves.
Pieta succeeds in repulsing and enlightening viewers simultaneously, even if its views on self-sacrifice and redemption are cynical. Kim depicts violence and sexuality with frankness; they are physical manifestations of fear and desperation rather than an opportunity for exploitation. Like Scorsese's explorations of Catholic guilt, Pieta evenly juxtaposes these manifestations with the eternal struggle of the spiritual experience. Kim Ki-duk takes enormous (though not Mel Gibson–sized) risks in applying such ferocity to sacred themes, as he asserts that the path to righteousness is beset with land mines.