Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), the blank-faced protagonist of Pieta, is a collector for a loan shark who charges outrageous interest: Borrow $3,000, say, and you’ll have to pay back $30,000 in three months. Since most of the clients, who live in an industrial slum in Cheonggyecheon, South Korea, can rarely afford to settle their debts, Kang-do uses heavy machinery to cripple them in some way — taking a foot or a hand or an arm, just enough for their work insurance policies to cover the injury, so they can pay what they owe.
Living alone in a small apartment, with no apparent friends or family (the film implies he might even be a virgin), the 30-year-old Kang-do devotes himself entirely to his job. Then a woman (Cho Min-soo) shows up at his door, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him as a child. At first, Kang-do wants nothing to do with her. But the woman persists, gradually insinuating herself into his world until his heart softens and he lets her into his life.
Pieta was written and directed by Ki-duk Kim, who favors a quiet, reflective style (his previous films include 3-Iron, about two young lovers who never say a word to each other, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring, about an old monk teaching his young disciple on a floating temple). Although Pieta sounds violent, the camera always looks away from the carnage — there’s barely any blood in the film — suggesting more than it shows.
The film’s true subject, which is implied by its title (taken from the famed Christian sculpture depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the corpse of Jesus Christ), is the undying love of a mother for her son. Like many South Korean films, revenge is a major theme here, although the way Kim handles it is particularly subtle and surprising: It sneaks up on you. Guilt and redemption also play key roles in the story, which follows the transformation of a man who initially expresses his affection for his mom by asking her “Anyone you want me to kill?” and later is excited when she shows up with a birthday cake for him. Love, or even the semblance of love, changes him. Pieta occasionally ventures into dark territory, and it ends with an unforgettable image of heartbreaking horror — the ultimate redemption. But Kim, ever the humanist, never loses sight of the value of life and the perils of growing inured to the suffering of others.
Cast: Lee Jung-jin Lee, Cho Min-soo, Woo Ki-Hong Woo, Kang Eunjin.
Writer-director: Ki-duk Kim.
Producer: Kim Soon-Mo.
A Drafthouse Films release. Running time: 104 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, brief violence, adult themes. In Korean with English subtitles. Plays today-May 26 in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.