Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

28 February 2013

Mother and Son

Last weekend, Dartmouth brought a whole bunch of films here from the Busan International Film Festival, which means I stopped everything and went to see Kim Ki-duk's latest movie Pieta.

The film was much more horrifying than the Kim Ki-duk movies to which I have grown accustomed. Pieta is a kind of riff on the narrative of a film like Bong Joon-ho's Mother. A gangster who gets money by maiming poor machinery workers (he forces them to put their hands or other limbs in their machinery in order to collect insurance money) begins to be followed by a strange woman. The woman tells him she is his mother, and begs forgiveness for having abandoned him thirty years earlier.

Of course, the young man is a gangster and so he has plenty of enemies and has continued to cultivate many more. Having family just complicates the kinds of revenge that can be wrought. And Pieta is a revenge film, a kind of high tragedy, Jacobean revenge story where everyone is brought low by the tale's end. It is horrifying and psychological and plenty disturbing, with – and this is Kim Ki-duk's skill at work – some beautifully surreal imagery.

I had seen three Kim Ki-duk films before (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, Time, and 3-iron), and so I wasn't really expecting a film that was much more violent and disturbing than thoughtful and intellectually provocative. I asked the curator of the festival about this after the film, and she told me I was out of my mind. "Pieta is like a Park Chan-wook movie", I said. "Where's the Buddhism? Where's the sensitivity?" I asked.

"It is not like a Park Chan-wook movie", she said. "It is like a Kim Ki-duk movie. You need to see Bad Guy, or my favorite, Crocodile."

Busan's festival programmer (her name is Cho Young-Jung) told me that the films of Kim Ki-duk's that I like are the period of time when people though he was "losing his touch" or "gone soft". She totally schooled me. It was great. I found the whole thing pretty hilarious. (Then some professor emerita woman from the Theater Department came and interrupted so that she could tell the curator all about how it was "just like Greek tragedy".)

At any rate, I rather loved Pieta, too, so maybe I just like Kim Ki-duk no matter what: maiming people in machinery, meditating on the Buddha, doing disturbing things with plastic surgery, whatever.