South Korean cinema has exploded internationally in the past decade or so. I won't speculate about how South Korean society informs the consciousness of its filmmakers because, well, we probably only see a fraction of the output. It would be like basing your opinions of American culture on the Real Housewives shows. Well, OK, bad example.
Anyway, Kim Ki-Duk's Pieta, opening in limited release tomorrow (5/17/13), is as twisted and unexpected as much of the Korean cinema that has reached this shore. With its dazzlingly cynical story and intensely squalid setting, it's a trip to the dark side -- indeed, the darkest side.
Lee Jeong-jin plays Gang-Do, a loan shark's debt collector who seems to prey on the most unfortunate of fringe workers in an industrial area of Seoul. He works as enforcer for a money man, who makes the loans under one condition: The borrower sign a disability-insurance policy, with the loan shark as beneficiary. Then, if the debtor fails to make a payment, Gang-Do comes and cripples them, collecting the insurance to settle the loan.
It's a cruel and ruthless business but Gang-Do, an orphan who obviously has lived a brutal life, seemingly has no conscience. Or any sort of feelings at all - at least until a woman, Mi-Son (Jo Min-soo) shows up on his doorstep claiming to be his mother. She's a sorrowful sort, chagrined at the embarrassment of an unwanted pregnancy, contrite about giving up the baby, eager to reestablish a relationship with Gang-Do.
Gang-Do, however, is unconvinced.
This review continues on my website.