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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mama's Boy: Film Review by Don Wallace of Pieta from the Honolulu Weekly

Mama’s Boy
Pieta critiques Korean capitalism, but Mom steals the show.

In a way it’s a shame that M.R.C. Greenwood, president of the University of Hawaii, didn’t get a chance to see the new Korean shocker Pieta before the recent unpleasantness up in Manoa. Then she’d have understood where Donna Mercado Kim, state senate president and lately Greenwood’s personal nemesis, was coming from when she called to ask about her son’s law-school application. Greenwood might have better gotten the point, that Kim is a mother first and foremost. And if she’d seen Pieta (or 2009’s Mother, an equally jolting Korean valentine), she would’ve understood that you mess with mamacita at your peril. And maybe she’d still be UH president, instead of a lame duck.

The wrath of Mommy–slow-fermenting, duplicitous, Oedipal–is what drives this most brutal film about filial duty, maternal revenge and directorial irreverence. The story: Gang-do (Jeong-ji Lee) is a debt collector for a loansharking operation specializing in the mom-’n’-pop machine shops that fuel the Asian Tiger economies. You borrow, you miss a payment, the rate jumps 10,000 percent in a week and then Gang-do comes by to cripple you, often using your own machinery, in order to clear your debt through health insurance reimbursements. The expression “give an arm and a leg” is literal here. (Let’s hope Sarah Palin doesn’t hear about it.)

Luminous small-screen newcomer Mi-soo Jo is the chic femme fatale who appears at Gang-do’s side in a slimy alley and follows him home. Gang-do is a throwaway baby, emotionally stunted: no better than a beast (and perhaps worse). Beauty turns out to be his mother, who gave him up and now has come to make amends. Director Ki-duk Kim is cruelly masterful in setting this up, and it’s an impressive feat to keep us watching. But then this is Kim’s 18th film, and he’s tutored a new generation of filmmakers who’ve given K-film its pop-violent sheen since the 1990s.

Once my shock over the film’s first five minutes had subsided, I found I could stomach the twists and turns, and even admire, albeit with a shudder, Kim’s vision. Conscience and sympathies newly awakened by the appearance of his mother, Gang-do begins to rue his career. He softens, which incurs the ire of his scary three-piece-suited boss. We anticipate a showdown and then, just as the story is beginning to feel like a bloody Christmas Carol, Mom gets down.

Helping to put this over are two leads giving breakout performances. Jeong-jin Lee as Gang-do impresses the most as a lankier Lee Marvin, with a similar blank expressiveness and barely controlled menace. Obviously he’s grown up since his 2004 TV series, Love Story in Harvard. In fact, the plot samples that defining Lee Marvin teeth-grinder, Point Blank. Psy he’s not.

In the last analysis, the film has a lot more than blood on its mind. On his rounds, Gang-do is taking us on a surreptitious tour of the underbelly of East-Asian capitalism. We’re seeing what causes events like the recent Bangladesh factory collapse and Apple’s Chinese employee suicides; only these are the maimings that we never hear about.

In keeping with the theater of cruelty motif, we also experience the flipside of our worship of street-eating and food-discovery programs like Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Yes, Pieta is a locavore’s nightmare: Snout-to-tail doesn’t begin to describe the coolly ruthless food-prep scenes. Admirers of food stalls and traditional cuisine may squirm at the implication that a good chef is, by skillset and psyche, a good torturer.

If you’re squeamish, this may not be the film for you. But if someone you love wants to test his or her blood pressure, you can always buy a ticket for Lore at the adjacent theater at Kahala 8. It’s got a more uplifting, and bankable, emotional impact (über-Aryan German refugee family roaming after WWII saved by Jewish camp survivor) and has earned very good notices.

Pieta succeeds in living up to its name because it embodies a character of utter repulsiveness and yet, as the title hints, engenders pity.

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