Thursday, May 16, 2013

No comfort in this 'Pieta'

Here's a fun idea, not to mention one that offers a rare glimpse into the twisted corners of my psyche. If you live in Denver or any other city with art houses, you may be able to devote the better part of a day to watching two films about guys who earn their living by wrecking other people's lives.

Start with the American movie, The Iceman (see review below), and graduate to the Korean movie, Pieta. By the time, you're done with this emotionally crippling double bill, you may be asking your doctor about the advisability of starting a course of anti-depressants. If so, consider it a good thing: You'll be reacting to two movies that -- unlike most of what we see these days -- aren't afraid to land a punch.

Directed by the prolific Kim Ki-duk, Pieta probably is the more difficult movie to watch because Kim is a master when it comes to making you feel the pain that the movie's main character inflicts on his targets. Note: I used the word "feel" intentionally. You'll feel more than you see in Kim's work, which (in my estimation) makes his use of violence even more potent.

Kim sets up each violent episode with an excruciating succession of shots that eliminate the need to show the act itself. For Kim, an off-screen scream becomes as powerful as a gory image might be in the hands of a lesser talent.

Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a young man who collects money for a loan shark, administers most of the movie's punishment. When people can't pay, Kang-do maims them so that he can cash in on their insurance policies, which name him as the beneficiary. An arm here. A leg there. Maybe a hand or two. It's all the same to the expressionless Kang-do, who lives alone in a crummy apartment in an industrial area populated by small businessmen who eke out their livings in stalls where they operate heavy machinery.

When Kang-do creates a cripple, he's also depriving his victim of the ability to earn a living. He's an enforcer whose stock in trade promises a lifetime of deprivation and misery.

The story begins with the suicide of one of Kang-do's victims, and picks up steam when a strange woman (Cho Min-soo) enters Kang-do's life. She claims to be the mother who abandoned Kango-do when he was a newborn. She blames herself for the sorry state into which he has fallen. She wants to reconnect.

Kang-do brushes the woman off, but she succeeds in making him curious, thereby suggesting that trace elements of humanity may linger in Kang-do's nearly moribund conscience.

But Kang-do is so accustomed to degrading people that the only way he can test the woman's veracity is by degrading her.

And make no mistake: Kang-do is ready for the task. This is a young man who brings home live food (a chicken, say), slaughters it in his bathroom, and leaves the entrails on the tile floor. So it's hardly surprising that it takes Kang-do more than half the movie to entertain the idea that he might be connected to this remarkably persistent woman.

Of course, when Kang-do begins to drop his guard, he's not exactly exposing himself to a full-scale emotional assault. To put the woman to the test, Kang-do cuts off one his toes and demands that she eat it. And that's before he rapes her. Now if that's not enough of a clue, let me say it outright: Pieta is not what you'd call an "easy" film.

But as the movie progresses into its second half, you'll realize that Kim is after something more than exploitative shock. He's exploring the deep human urge for revenge, and also taking a hard look at what some people will do for money in a society where cash seems to have become the very wellspring of life.

Kim deals with these larger issues in somewhat schematic fashion, and although the movie is grounded in a gritty and entirely specific milieu, it also tends to be a bit abstract, a story that may have been written under an umbrella of ideas that Kang-do brought with him to the table.

Still, if you can tolerate Pieta, you'll find a movie with a deliberate style that seldom looks beyond the microcosm of the cruel world that it creates. Pieta breaks down our defenses, exposing us to Kang-do in much the same way as his helpless victims must face him.

And when you're done, you can play a game of compare-and-contrast, using Pieta and The Iceman as your subjects. If you take me up on this challenge, I suggest you begin your undertaking in a bar where you not only can think about two provocative movies, but where you can get yourself a stiff drink.

And here's an FYI you might want to consider: Pieta won the Golden Lion at last fall's Venice Film Festival, and Kim, who has made 18 movies in all, long has been an art-house favorite.

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