Ki-duk Kim’s 2012 Pieta is similar to many of the director’s previous efforts in a lot of ways: a largely taciturn lead character (though, compared to say, Bad Guy, Pieta’s Gang-Do (Jeong-jin Lee) is positively garrulous), moments of extreme violence, immaculate characters opposite those distinctly less-so, and an emphasis on class differences.
Pieta is a strong film, and will probably draw immediate comparison’s to Joon-ho Bong’s 2009 film Mother, though it’s actually closer to Ki-duk projects like the aforementioned Bad Guy, The Isle, or Address Unknown. I like Ki-duk because his narratives always get complicated in a way that you can’t foresee from the outset, and because of the very difficult decisions he makes his characters face (see, here in Pieta, a scene where Gang-Do and Mi-Son face-off with a cripple who holds the latter hostage. Then think about this scene again after the film is complete).
Gang-Do is pretty brutal. He’s a mob enforcer who callously and violently injures those behind on interest-heavy payments. When Mi-Son (Min-soo Jo) shows up claiming to be the mother that abandoned him years ago, Gang-Do starts to soften.
Ki-duk’s film fits into his filmography not only for the reasons stated above, but also for his consistent aesthetics. Here, his camera is entirely handheld (he incorporates some zooms more frequently than I recall in his other films – they’re a little annoying at times), and the dingy interiors, while in stark contrast with the immaculate spaces in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, or the claustrophobia of 3-Iron, still end up as representative of class divides.
Here’s the opening to the film – a series of shots that sets the tone and mystery for what’s to come:
If you can’t tell from the still frames, it’s a suicide scene. A wheelchair-bound man figures out a way to hang himself with a hook and a bit of machinery. It’s a nicely designed sequence in that Ki-duk never cuts to the wide to reveal, but instead relies solely on these cause-and-effect close-ups and mediums. Much of the film is also about the drudgery of lower class life, and Ki-duk hits that point home early-on: the man’s suicide is as mechanical as the type of assembly-line machines he works on.
Ki-duk’s visual style extends to his use of location. Here’s a look at three different types of spaces, all representing different classes, and all looking quite unique. Gang-Do’s small but comfortable apartment:
The shiny, brand new looking apartment complex of Gang-Do’s boss (Jong-hak Son):
And the hovel occupied by one of Gang-Do’s former victims:
Each place has its own color scheme and texture. Gang-Do’s place is homey, with cooling tans and beiges. The boss’ building is cold, metal, marble, and blue and white. The victim’s dwelling is orange and brown, reflective in a different way than the boss’ building, and quite low key in comparison to the other two locations. That last location seems like classic Ki-duk in its makeshift, nearly sci-fi appearance.
Like other thrillers (including, if memory serves, other Joon-ho Bong films), Ki-duk focuses in on the color red as a motif and theme for Mi-Son. One of the more striking images has her jet black hair as a pool of water against a red (and black) checkered rug:
In less intense situations, the same type of pattern is present, though hardly as prominent or menacing:
Or there’s this image, where the red barely peeks into frame, yet still somehow seems to dominate. Mi-Son intruding on, and bringing her own angst into a location we’ve seen before (I love color scheme clashes):