There is a certain exchange that is understood between audiences familiar with the “extreme” cinema coming out of East Asia in the past decade or so and the filmmakers within that particular subgenre. Specifically speaking, the exchange usually follows a basic code, acknowledging that in line with the horrifying, brutal content that the film exposes comes a powerful message within, much akin to the cautionary folklore traceable to almost any territory in the world. However, with Pieta, the vicious new film from Kim Ki-duk in limited theaters today from Drafthouse Films, a noticeable identity crisis is on display, as the cinematic experience dances along the line of that basic code, always hinting to a fall into straight exploitation.

This is not to take away from Pieta as a film in general, however. Pieta is thoroughly gripping, engaging, cringe-inducing and challenging, expecting more intellectually and philosophically out of viewers than a standard issue revenge thriller. The film, which follows a remorseless loan shark enforcer whose life is derailed by the appearance of his long-lost mother, plays out with a clever mean streak, allowing the story to unravel with as little forward vocal exposition as possible whilst also shocking around every corner with moments unexpected sadistic violence. However, this violence never detracts from the larger story at hand, which carries a heavy religious implication about the damage of the human soul without necessarily leaning on the blunt presence of iconic holy imagery.

However, the identity crisis that the film does suffer begins in a place of context, as the influences of the film, or at least what appears to be the influences of the film, are front-and-center, making it difficult for cinema lovers to handle the narrative experience of Pieta simplistically. To the untrained or unfamiliar eye, Pieta will be an objective experience and quite possibly more effective because of that aspect. But the film’s dry and slow-burn content begs to be compared to the work of other “extreme” Asian filmmakers, including but not exclusive to Park Chan-wook, Na Hong-jin and Kim Ji-woon, especially in terms of the occasional spat of dark humor in the film that parallels the lack of humanity within the story. One can even compare moments in the film that don’t necessarily rely on gore, but the implication of pain, to Ben Wheatley’s Kill List or the work of Michael Haneke. But most glaringly upon the films influences is that of Lars Von Trier, as the handheld and eclectic camerawork is incredibly reminiscent of the infamous Danish directors’ films, let alone the comparisons that can be made about the films sexual content, depicted mutilation and atmospheric nihilism.

Speaking of the film’s camerawork, Cinematographer Cho Yeong-jik provides the film’s second strongest tool after the storytelling within the films visual elements. Pieta’s dark color palate accentuates the bleakness within the story as well as the environment in which the film takes place, as the only fully illuminated area of the film is within the building of the main characters big-business employers (note that I refrained from the term ‘protagonist’, as there is really no ‘protagonist’ within the morally complicated film). Since long stretches of the film rely on silent implication of narrative needs, Cho does an incredible job of focusing on the minutiae of the setting to emphasize the stark embodiment of the characters’ souls. Furthermore, the film rarely goes for wide-angle or low-angle shots, wisely making the experience that the film takes you on more voyeuristic in nature as to further attempt to evoke empathy.

Obviously, a main point of controversy amongst cinephiles with the reputation of the film is the execution of the brutal content. Pieta cannot be written off as merely shock-and-awe filmmaking, as there is almost no glorified gore or explicit sexual content, allowing the imagination of the viewer to determine the power of the appalling moments. However, aside from the implied violence (a true success on the part of Sound Designer Lee Seung-yup), Ki-duk does brashly venture into the realm of possibly incestuous sexual assault and forced cannibalism, which is presented in a manner more indicative of a taunting act of transgression rather than a developed moment of artistic storytelling. This is not to say that the moment isn’t effective or necessary to the storytelling, but merely that the presentation of such moments could have been handled with a more finite emotional payoff if not depicted with such blatant disregard for the dramatic need of both characters.

Issues with the content portrayal and identity of the film aside, Pieta is a truly harrowing and unique film, with across-the-board solid performances and an unpredictable narrative structure. Kim Ki-duk shows his attraction for controversial material is not unfounded, as he is still a master of his crafts in many respects, unafraid to take Pieta in any direction he feels, whether that may be through moments of dark humor, repugnant depravity or dramatic intensity. Lee Jung-jin and Jo Min-su are phenomenal in their leading roles, giving unflinching and ceaselessly fascinating performances that are not to be missed. Min-su in particular provides a vulnerability rarely seen in these films, which makes her choices towards the end of the film all the more unforgettable and satisfying. Credit should also be given to Park In-young, whose memorable score breaks up the long stretches of silence to help further establish the framing of the narrative.

For fans of thrillers, especially those which court the horror and exploitation genres with such elegant frailty, Pieta is a jarring but absolutely astounding film. Pieta may have flaws which will especially detract those familiar with the aforementioned genres, and those who don’t sit well with controversial social taboos may need to stay away from the film. But the strength of Pieta’s parable for salvation and redemption is effective, further complimented with wondrous actors and a story that neither panders nor apologizes to audiences. Pieta will be a polarizing film in the years to come, much more polarizing than many of its “extreme” East Asian contemporaries, but that’s the price to pay when such beautiful cinematic expression exposes itself to an extraordinary demoralization.

By Ken W. Hanley