Given that Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk’s eighteenth feature is a film with serious parental issues and a whiff of revenge thriller, it’s natural to assume that Pietà has the potential to be this decade’s Oldboy. Combine that enticing subject matter with the film’s bagging of the top prize at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, and expectations could hardly be higher. So while Pietà is undoubtedly intriguing, it's surprising – and a little disappointing - to find that it seems more interested in wilfully alienating its audience than in giving it anything meaningful to chew on.
Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a 30-year-old loan enforcer who relishes violently crippling clients unable to pay the extortionate interest his employer charges. Out of the blue, Min-sun (Cho Min-soo) appears to Kang-do, explaining that she is the mother who abandoned him at birth and wishes to make amends. To describe their relationship as unorthodox is like describing the core of the sun as 'toastie': Kang-do's methods of testing Min-sun's truthfulness are horrific, yet she takes them in her stride, while Min-sun gladly offers Kang-do a helping hand in a situation where a man's mother is usually the last thing on his mind.
Kang-do is a deeply unpleasant creation: his barely concealed glee at torturing innocent people immediately marks him out as a wrong 'un, but Kim fills a large part of his film with repeated violent visits to hard-up clients to hammer (and drill) the message home. He even shows us Kang-do masturbating in his sleep: apparently a clear sign that he’s a deeply disturbed psycho. Hopes that he might, therefore, reveal interesting layers to his character at some point are dashed when it appears that he's like that simply because he was an abandoned baby. Likewise, the sea change his personality undergoes after the appearance of Min-sun is hard to swallow, and he becomes little more than a conduit for Kim to enact controversy-baiting acts which do little to further the plot or deepen the character.
When the truth about the relationship between Kang-do and Min-sun becomes clear it's a welcome (though not particularly inspired) twist in an otherwise pedestrian drama, but as Pietà's bizarre mother/son dynamic enters familiar territory it becomes, ironically, more entertaining but less interesting. Flashes of delicious black comedy alleviate the brutality, but unavoidable comparisons to Bong Joon-ho's Mother (2010) and Park Chan-wook's Vengeance trilogy reveal that Pietà isn't as nuanced or intelligent as either.