As a former Film Studies student, my passion for world cinema is something I developed during my first year at university. Of particular interest for me was East Asian cinema; one of my key essays during second year was an analysis of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) – a unique adaptation that translated the story of Macbeth to a foreign culture by placing it in the context of feudal Japan.
This Asian market was also one in which the horror genre experienced a major resurgence in the late 1990s through films such as Hideo Nakata’s international hit Ring (1998) and Takashi Miike’s equally powerful thriller Audition (1999). Both are renowned for signature scenes toward their conclusion, which are almost as disturbing as each other (Miike’s effort probably slightly wins out, if winning is what we’re calling it), and are the benchmark by which films such as Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta (2012) are now judged.
Despite lacking any one ‘signature’ scene in the vein of the films mentioned above, Pieta is one that is no less memorable when taken as a whole. The story centres on a brutal loan collector whose violent nature is matched only by his dislike of the company of other people. He lives a lonely, basic lifestyle when not ‘working’. This work involves visiting clients who are late on repayments for monthly loans – their debt multiplied by ten due to excessive interest – and crippling them by cutting off fingers or breaking their legs, the idea being that the insurance claim covers the arrears.
Such a description makes it sound like some scenes in the first half of the movie will be harder to watch than they actually are. In reality, those who have viewed the aforementioned horror films (Audition in particular) may find themselves disappointed by the lack of visceral hits Pieta has to offer. Much of the violence hinted at by the films promotional material is not shown on screen. Some in the audience (the normal ones, you could say) will, of course, be thankful for this.
Pieta is memorable not for this first half, but for the direction it takes in its second. Our main character’s simple routine is slowly interrupted by the unexpected appearance of a woman claiming to be his mother. After subjecting her to a series of abnormal tests that push the boundaries of domestic abuse, he gradually comes to accept her as such.
Then, as he begins to live out some of the lost years of his childhood (which includes a shopping trip into town, holding his mother’s hand like a little boy), we see the character transform from a brutal human being into someone healing the scars of parental abandonment by rediscovering a deep sense of innocence. We find ourselves starting to understand and feel pity for this character, who had otherwise appeared so repulsive in the film’s early scenes.
There is a final twist to come, but it feels almost underwhelming in the face of such a dramatic turn in the middle of the story. In this sense the film does bear similarity to Miike’s Audition, which also dramatically changed direction mid-way through, albeit in a distinctly opposite fashion.
Yet there is little else in which you can compare Pieta with traditional Asian horror. Indeed, one could question whether it should be classified as a horror movie at all; more the psychological study of causes and effects of a man’s cruelty. Western audiences unfamiliar with the dark extremes to which the East can sometimes go, however, may justifiably find this film more horrifying than I.
Ki-duk’s handheld camerawork helps add to an uneasy atmosphere throughout the film by pulling off a gritty, realistic look. This feels delightfully contradictory alongside some of the unnerving events you witness; an effect that seems to be entirely intentional. Suddenly you’ll find that seeing a man being thrown off a balcony, screaming as his leg breaks when he reaches the ground, hits a lot closer to home than the average Hollywood movie – where the death toll is much higher but also more disconnected thanks to catchy soundtracks and cheesy one-liners.
It is this aspect more than anything else that fills you with a slight sense of dread as you watch, unaware of how far the director is going to take things next time. Even if you can deal with hearing other people scream in agony and fear, there are the scenes involving animals that could still catch you out.
Overall, Pieta deserves most of the accolades it has received since its 2012 release. Committed fans of Asian horror may come away feeling slightly disappointed if they had braced themselves for more, but that’s only because some of us have brutally conditioned ourselves, through blood sweat and tears, to expect the worst.
8 / 10