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'Pieta' tries to redeem a thuggish loan shark through motherly love

"Pieta," the latest from one-time South Korean shocker Kim Ki-duk, finds a sadistic loan shark on a predictable path to salvation.

Lee Jung-jin plays a sadistic loan shark in Kim Ki-duk's "Pieta" Credit: Drafthouse Films Lee Jung-jin plays a sadistic loan shark in Kim Ki-duk's "Pieta."
Credit: Drafthouse Films

'Pieta'
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Stars: Lee Jeong-jin, Jo Min-soo
Rated: NR
2 (out of 5) Globes

Put simply, South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk is the type of filmmaker who would make a fraught, sometimes sexually outre film about a mother-son relationship and call it “Pieta.” Kang-do (Lee Jeong-jin) is a miserable, sadistic loan shark with a hairdo borrowed from mid-1990s London. While doing his usual duties of brutally crippling marks and using the insurance money to pay back their cartoonishly high debts, he runs afoul of Mi-son (Jo Min-soo), a mysterious middle-aged woman he claims is the mother who gave him up soon as he was born. Perhaps Kang-do wouldn’t have become a psychopathic rapist meanie if he’d had a nice mother who loved him, the film wonders. She’s intent to make up for lost time, even if that only means putting in a few extra kicks to some poor guy’s ribs after Kang-do has already worked him over.

When he started out in the late ’90s and early aughts, Kim was one of the nastier of the South Korean tyros, which is saying something. (We won’t reveal into which body part a fish hook was attached in “The Isle.”) In the middle of the last decade, he suddenly calmed down. “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring,” “3-Iron” and “Time” parlaid his penchant for heavy formalism and questionable symbolism into satisfying (though still questionable) explorations of faith, morality and persona. Then he went over the edge. “The Bow” and other recent films go too far into simplistic bathos, making the paucity of his ideas all the more noticeable and ruining the balance that made those three films seem like the work of a promising talent.

“Pieta,” Kim's first to get significant notice in ages, swings back the other way. A scene where Kang-do shoves his hand into his alleged mother’s nether regions, declaiming “I came out of here?” is a juvenile’s idea of transgression, conceived chiefly to be debated and excoriated in reviews like this. It’s all building to pat salvation anyway, with Mi-son gradually — but not that gradually — breaking down her potential son’s defenses, exposing him to the harm he’s caused others and making his heart, once two sizes too small, perhaps become two sizes too big. (OK, it stops before it gets that bad.) As with anything, presentation can make even the most noxious tale somewhat tolerable. Kim has a plain, direct, almost earnest directing style that makes following “Pieta” on one level satisfying, even as its unsatisfying destination is never for a second in doubt.

 
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