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A loan shark living an isolated and lonely existence uses brutality to threaten and collect paybacks from desperate borrowers for his moneylender boss. He proficiently and mercilessly collects the debts without regard to the pain he causes his countless victims. One day, a mysterious woman appears in front of him claiming to be his long-lost mother. After coldly rejecting her at first, he gradually accepts her in his life and decides to quit his cruel job and seek a decent, redemptive life. However, he soon discovers a dark secret stemming from his past and realizes it may be too late to escape the horrific consequences already set in motion from his previous life. (From Drafthouse Films’ official synopsis)

I am familiar with Kim Ki-Duk’s work, but only by reputation. Despite reviewing dozens of Tartan ‘Asia Extreme’ releases when I first started with DVDActive, I’ve never actually seen any of his movies (there used to be a handful of them on Netflix, but those are gone now). Obviously I’d be better equipped to contextualize Pietà, had I seen Kim’s more famous/infamous work ( The Isle, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, and Samaritan Girl), but I do understand that his output has been largely controversial for its brutal violence and graphic sexual content. I also have a working knowledge of the Korean New Wave film movement that Kim helped solidify over the last decade-plus. Luckily for me, Pietà (which is being called one of Kim’s most conventional films) is very easy to compare to other South Korean crime dramas, especially those that take on the popular family theme, such as Lee Jung-Beom’s The Man From Nowhere and Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother, though certain plot developments will draw comparisons more towards Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy (the resilient sense of nihilism reminds me more of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance).

Pietà is similar to late ‘90s/early ‘00s Japanese crime flicks, specifically Takashi Miike’s more ‘rational’ genre pictures. Movies like Rainy Dog, Ley Lines, and City of Lost Souls explore similarly intimate criminal characterizations. There aren’t any easy answers in these ambiguous universe and the characters end up learning life lessons from unlikely sources. The screenplay, by Kim himself, is more of a rough sketch than a tight rendering and is shockingly moving at times despite its relentless sense of austerity. The story can be a bit exhausting in terms of its nihilism and insistence on weird little character touches, but real problems only crop up when Kim is depending too much on dialogue and things get a little ‘expositiony.’ The occasionally unnatural dialogue rhythms are mostly normalized through repetition. The violence that has made the film so controversial in some circles is largely left to the audience’s imagination, which actually makes for a more disturbing experience. This is more of a case of ideas being revolting than actual on-screen gore – though animal rights advocates should be warned that Kim has no qualms about showing the process of turning critters into food for the sake of shock.

Pietà examines Christian and Freudian ideas through a deceptively simple gangland melodrama, though I’d say the more potent theme is the burden of disability – both physical, in the case of Kang-Do’s victims, and emotional, in the case of the man himself. It is an incredibly tactile film where the sensation of pain can practically be felt through the screen and the story is told almost entirely through images, rather than dialogue. The title ‘Pietà’ refers to an image of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus that was made most famous by Michelangelo’s sculpture that sits in St. Peter's Basilica. Despite the connection, Kim opts for an understated, hand-held look for most of the film that doesn’t recall Renaissance artistry. There is a sort of inherent baroque quality to the images, but this is due more to the innately decorative production design. Lead actor Lee Jung-Jin sets the bedrock for the film as a genuinely cruel bastard that causes almost as much damage to his victims through psychological humility as physical pain. He’s thoroughly unlikable as the film begins, but slowly morphs into a sympathetic human being as his ‘mother’s’ influence makes his heartless job more difficult to do. Actress Jo Min-Su gives the film’s more tender performance. She’s so emotionally naked and genuinely that sad it’s hard to argue with the embarrassment of awards she received for her efforts.



According to the specs, Pietà was shot using Canon EOS 5D Mark II cameras, which are ‘consumer grade’ digital HD cameras. Assuming this is correct, this Blu-ray’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is a testament to the current state of affordable digital filmmaking. It seems that an EOS can’t get much higher resolution than 2K (assuming I’m reading the specs correctly), but that doesn’t matter when we’re watching it in 1080p. There’s very little here in terms of compression artefacts besides some minor inconsistencies in the digital noise levels throughout the film. Details are sharp from front to back, though the regular use of shallow focus does make the close-ups more impressive in terms of texture. The less common wide-angle shots are particularly impressive, however, thanks to the busy production design and its tight patterns. Kim and cinematographer Cho Yeong-Jik opt for a natural palette without any obvious colour grading. The digital format makes for a nice, smooth brownish/greenish base with tightly separated red and blue highlights. Dynamic range is also pretty great, despite the softer contrast levels muddying up some of the finer details in darker shots. There are some issues with banding and moiré effects between hue blends (there are a handful of shots where faces look quite blobby), but no real problems with aliasing or edge enhancement.



The back cover lists a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix, but, don’t worry, this is a full-bodied 5.1 mix and it is presented in the film’s original Korean language. This is a dry track for the most part that puts its aural emphasis on dialogue and basic environmental ambience, both of which are usually situated in the center channel without much bleeding. This sound is crisp and natural, but the lack of stereo or surround enhancement isn’t going to win the mix any awards. At best, the grinding, buzzing, and chugging terror of various mechanical implements cut through the middle very realistically. Rookie composer Park In-Young’s score doesn’t even come into play all that often; though, when it does, it is given a wider representation throughout all of the channels.



The extras begin with a commentary track from Kim and his actors, Cho Min-Soo and Lee Jung-Jin, recorded in Korean and presented with English subtitles. The three participants work well together, asking each other pertinent questions about their part in the film and are complimentary without gushing. They also clearly get along, which becomes infectious as the track progresses. For such a notoriously ‘dark’ fellah, Kim is relatively warm presence here. He’s good about discussing his intent for any given sequences without sounding like a pompous artiste. He’s also a good moderator, though Lee ends up being very good at asking the types of questions an audience would likely ask the director. Cho seems happy to chime in only in support of other statements, but has his share of pertinent questions as well. The discussion wanes a bit throughout, but often picks up when Kim begins discussing something more thematic and less screen-specific, making for a relatively full total commentary experience.

Up next is God, Have Mercy on Us (13:00, SD), a collection of interviews with Kim, Cho, and Lee. These are EPK-style interviews, but the subject matter does feature spoilery stuff about character, plot, meaning, etc. This is followed by what is labeled ‘behind-the-scenes featurettes’ (5:20, SD), but what is really a series of press release interviews, a sort of video slide show of Kim’s other films/promo piece for the film (2:30, SD), a trailer, and trailers for other Drafthouse releases.



It seems far too obvious to suggest double-featuring Pietà with Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother, but I’m going to do it anyway, because the two films compliment each other so well. They’re both built around similar themes, but they explore those themes with markedly different results. Pietà is bleak and, at times, a bit convoluted, even inadvertently (?) satirical, but it’s also emotionally satisfying and wonderfully acted. Drafthouse’s Blu-ray has some issues with blobby banding effects (which may be the result of the chosen digital format), a simple and clear DTS-HD MA audio track, and a decent collection of extras headed by a solid director/cast commentary.

Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.