Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Pietà [2012]

MPAA (UR would be R) Chicago SunTimes (3 stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Chicago SunTimes (B. Stamets) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Pietà [2012] (written and directed by South Korean director Ki-Duk Kim) is an often brutal (definitely hard-R) yet not without its point, award winning film that IMHO probably appropriately (certainly it was worthy) though somewhat amusingly won both "The Golden Mouse" (for the best "small film") and "The Golden Lion" (for best film, period) at the Venice International Film Festival last year (2012).  It played recently at Chicago's Facets Multimedia and is available at Amazon Instant Video.

Set in a grimy oil, pipe and rust covered section of an ultra-industrialized, scant tree to be found, South Korean town where an entire neghborhood of tiny "mom and pop" machine shop businesses are stacked one next to another all presumably competing with each other to survive, the setting has an intentional "post-Apocalyptic" (but emphatically "post-Apocalyptic NOW") feel to it.  Overcast, less rainy but certainly colder, imagine the setting as Ridley Scott's Bladerunner [1982] but covered in snow and set in South Korea today rather than in some near or more distant future.  This is the second such "post-Apocalypse NOW" film that I've seen in the last couple of years, the other being an arguably "lighter" film named Viva Riva! [2010] by Congolese director Djo Munga in which that film's hero "Riva" enters Congo's capital of Kinshasa with a truck full of stolen petrol (gasoline) and is greeted by the local inhabitants from the mob to the local bishop ;-) as a hero torn out of a Madmax [1979] / Road Warrior [1981] story. 

Both this current film, Pietà [2012] and Viva Riva! [2010] along with Filipino film Graceland [2012] that played here and I reviewed recently serve as reminders to me (and which I share with readers here now) of the oft expressed view of a lot of the Asian and Latin American friars of my (Servite) Order with whom I studied at my Order's international college in Rome that Americans (and really Westerners in general...) simply don't have a clue about the struggles of life in the poorer countries of the world today, again "not in some distant Apocalyptic time in the future" but today.

Trying to appreciate this in earlier years, I led several groups of Americans from Servite apostolates in the United States to places like the Servite Mission in the Acre/Amazon region of Brazil and another Servite Mission in the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico.  But I also tried to explain to both our guys on the ground there and others who we met through them in both places that the vast majority of Americans really couldn't afford to go on trips like this either.

Indeed, a good part of my reasoning in creating my blog (and then choosing to operate it in the way that I have -- lets face it, there are _a lot_ more reviews of "small international films" reviewed on this blog than one would probably initially expect to see on movie blog from the States -- was to offer Catholics (both American and non) as well as other readers of the blog an opportunity to "visit" other countries / realities otherwise beyond their/our reach at least through the movies (and then where possible through movies made by people from the places where they are set).  Most American Catholics can not afford to spend $1500-2000 to visit the Servites in the Philippines (or to visit the Servite Sisters in South Korea).  But for $7-8 they can at least download a film recently reviewed here from each of these places through Amazon Instant Video and perhaps better understand the "joys and sorrows" of our brothers and sisters living there ;-).

But to return then to the current film ... Pietà [2012] is set in this rundown district of an industrial city somewhere in South Korea today where the families owning these little "mom and pop" machine shops, one stacked on top of another, are all trying to eek out a means to survive.  In this environment when times get hard, people go into debt.  So the story focuses on Gang-Do (played by Joeng-jin Lee) a 20-something enforcer for a loan-shark/mob operation.

The scam that the local mob had set-up was the following:  They would loan the owners of these tiny metal shop operations who had fallen into hard times $3000 to pay off their debts but they also insist that they sign a disability insurance policy worth $30,000 to get the loan.  Then, if they couldn't pay back the $3,000 loan IN ONE MONTH'S TIME, the amount that they would owe would jump to $30,000 and an enforcer like Gang-Do would come by to MUTILATE the owner (cut off his arm, crush his leg, what-have-you...) so that the mob could collect the $30,000 on the insurance.

The beginning sequence of the film shows Gang-Do stringing up and torturing the owner of one of these small machine shops who was already in a wheel chair (apparently someone who had already been mutilated once for failing to pay back a previous loan ...).  Satisfied that he's performed enough damage on the owner of that machine shop so that his bosses could collect their insurance money, he returns then to his home, a dingy all metal and plastic apartment.  Inside the apartment, there's a metal stove, a metal table, a couple of chairs, a small not particularly algae filled fish-tank and a tiny one person bed.  Oh yes, and on the wall over the table is a single (on wood) painting of a nameless and topless young woman.  When he comes home, he takes off his coat.  Takes out his dagger, throws it at the wooden painting, PIERCING HER HEART ... and then he crashes on the bed.  The next scene shows him masturbating (under the covers) still half asleep as his cell-phone vibrates a few times, apparently sending him a few more names and addresses of shop owners to shakedown and mutilate.

Such then is Gang-Do's life -- and the viewer gets to "see" (or at least hear...) a few more times what becomes a sad, sad variously desperate symphony (if not a cacophony) of differing reactions of the owners (and often their loved ones...) when he as a veritable "Angel of Death" comes by to collect "his Master's due."

Yet one day, an older 40-something woman shows up (played by Min-soo Jo).  She starts following Gang-Do from a distance and she follows him all the way home.  Who is she?  She introduces herself with a pleading apology, "I am your mother, who made you into who you are, because I abandoned you when you were born."  "Yeah, right."  He enters his dingy apartment, leaving her outside (in the snow), throws his dagger into the heart of the topless young woman's picture hanging on the wall again, and goes to bed.

The next morning ... she's still outside.  He brushes her aside and continues in his work.  She follows him ... if at a distance.  When one of the shop-owners that Gang-Do is shaking down, spits on him, she enters the shop and SLAPS THE SHOP-OWNER and says: "How dare you talk to my son that way!  If you want to spit on someone then spit on me.  I'm the one who made him this way..."  Gang-Do proceeds then to throw the shopowner off of some balcony or something (high enough to severely injure him, but not enough to kill him ...) but at this point the woman has Gang-Do's attention.

At the end of the day, he takes her home.  Still not convinced who she is, even though she's protesting that she's his mother, he proceeds to do what would certainly be the most depraved act in the whole film.  Yes, he violates her.  Note that this as well as the other scenes in the film are shot with some discretion.  The camera always turns away or otherwise the viewer is shielded from what happens, but the viewer is also left with no doubt whatsoever about had  happened.

Yet this scene becomes a turning-point.  Her sobbing (rather than anger) afterwards do seem to convince him (finally) of the truth of what she was telling him.  Having violated her and witnessing her reaction to this, he (finally) opens up his life to her.

What now?  Well this is just the set-up for the second half of the movie... ;-)

Throughout the rest of the film, the viewer is left to wonder about the identity of this woman.  Is she really his mother?  If she is, then it becomes clear that she's more than just that.

Alternatively is she supposed to be MARY?  Well if she is supposed to be Mary, then BESIDES Gang-Do HAVING VIOLATED HER (even though he was an utterly inhuman thug at the time...) she'd be certainly MORE THAN JUST HIS MOTHER.  SHE'D ALSO BE THE MOTHER OF HIS VICTIMS.

Yet, once she has his confidence, the woman (finally) begins to increasingly aggressively reprove Gang-Do for his previous crimes AND (finally) show obvious concern for his victims.  Indeed, the question arises: In the traumatized, certainly fallen, arguably hellish setting of this film, was she actually one of the mothers of one of his victims, who insinuated herself into Gang-Do's life (even at such a great cost to her) so that she could then avenge the death her (other) child?

But returning to the question of whether she was supposed to be a Marian figure in this film:  Mary would have to be the Mother of both the Oppressor and the Oppressed.  How would that play out?  And how could both Justice and Reconciliation be accomplished?

The scenario presented in this film is clearly an extreme one.  The viewer may not even like the way the writer-director resolves the situation in the film.  Yet the film does raise interesting questions to the viewer.  If Mary would be "The Mother of All Her Children" (again of both the Oppressor and the Oppressed) and people at times do truly awful things to each other, what would a reconciliation between her estranged children look like?  And if some of those children were already dead, would such reconciliation even be possible in this world?  Do we really still live "in Exile" in a "Valley of Tears?"

As a final note, South Korea is actually one of the most Christian / Catholic countries in East Asia (18.3% Protestant, 10.8% Catholic in 2005 according to S. Korean gov't statistics cited in wikipedia).  Additionally, the Catholic Church in Korea has had a storied 250 year indigenous history complete with martyrs.  I make note of this to remind readers that writer-director Ki-Duk Kim was not approaching this film "randomly."  The imagery is obviously very, very strong but it's also obviously informed:  In one of the more amusing scenes in the film, after Gang-Do finally starts believing the woman who was claiming to be his mother and lets her stay in his home, one morning while he's still sleeping, she takes the Dagger that he keeps throwing into the Heart of the picture of the topless (abused) Young Woman that he has hanging on his wall, then pulls-out Gang-Do's pet eel (a "small serpent" after all) from his fish-tank, chops it up (against his previous objections) and serves it to him later for breakfast ;-).   Only an informed Catholic could come up with a scene like that ;-)

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