The Artistic Limits of Kim Ki-duk’s “Pieta”

This review is originally from my Letterboxd, but I added it here because why not.

Kim Ki-duk’s 2012 picture takes a great premise — a loan shark, Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), actualizes the violence of capitalism on the proletariat by turning his debtors into cripples when they default on their loans and a woman enters his life claiming to be his mother, which forces him to revisit those whom he crippled — and fails to live up to the inevitable comparisons of the great art that inspired it. 

“Pieta,” of course, refers to the sculpture (as well as the Christian artistic tradition) housed in St. Peter’s Basilica of the Virgin Mary holding the body of the dead Christ on her lap: Michelangelo’s great Pietà, one of the world’s most enduring artworks. As revealed in the bold title, Kim can’t help but stretch for limits, and constantly tugs on the tradition of the pietà to a point past allusion and towards reinvention. In the final 20 minutes, the film beats the dead horse and features a twist that even those alien to the Christian tradition of pietà may end up annoyed. 

The second great work of art this fails to live up to is that of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Both feature a lonely man who is forced to rethink his life’s decisions with an almost invisible guide. Moreso, both men, Kang-do and Scrooge,’s decisions are grounded in the greeds of capitalism. Yet, Dickens’ critique generalizes itself to capitalism as a whole, while Kim’s story goes out of its way in too unnecessary scenes with Kang-do’s boss, to clarify that this problem of realizing the violence through crippling is unique to Kang-do; Kim refuses to generalize, causing his allegory to fail and making his allusion to Dickens’ feel misguided at best.

There is great art and “Pieta” doesn’t let you forget that. And that’s too bad for “Pieta.” It’s comparable to a undergraduate student film making Kubrickian-ques or to a MFA writing student calling their mediocre novel “Dubliners.” 

(It’s also worth noting that Kim has been accused of sexual assault by a generous amount of women associated with his films. In most cases, separating the art from the artist would be much easier, but in “Pieta” the woman claiming to be the mother is raped by her supposed son. While the scene may have a function after reinterpreting it light of the ending’s reveal, it’s still difficult to stomach.)

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