The Body of Christ, by David Bax
South Korean provocateur Kim Ki-duk’s new film, Pieta, contains scenes of rape, dismemberment, whipping, shattered limbs, suicide and (one of the director’s vices) animal cruelty, among other things. There is so much physical pain and punishment exacted by and on the characters in the film, it approaches a sort of body horror. But Kim’s intention is not to frighten you. As is usual for his work, Pieta is a somatic and visceral film that’s really about the human soul. Or, at least, the soul as defined by Kim Ki-duk.
Lee Jeong-jin plays Kang-do, a loner and an intense, remorselessly violent man who works for a loan shark who has targeted a district of machine shop owners, lending them money and then demanding exorbitant interest. When they are unable to pay, Kang-do visits them, cripples them in some way (usually using the machinery that has provided them their living thus far) and the loan shark profits from the insurance payout while the borrowers’ livelihoods are decimated. One day, while making his brutal rounds, Kang-do sees that he is being followed by a woman with a haunted focus in her eyes, played marvelously by Jo Min-soo. She is the mother who abandoned him as an infant, she tells him. He doesn’t believe her. She refuses to leave. Eventually, they begin to change one another, though not in the ways one might predict.
Kim is Catholic, a fact that might not surprise you given the film’s title but also a part of his biography that has always shown through in his work. There’s a correlation of body and spirit that manifests differently in Catholicism than in most other religions. The religion becomes corporal and visceral in a ways that are often intentionally unpleasant. Transubstantiation, the notion that the Eucharist literally becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, is most closely associated with the Catholics. The idea of penance, that you can force yourself to do things here on earth to erase past misdeeds, can transform into a belief in purification through suffering. It’s why Catholics have taken self-flagellation as a religious experience to extremes (it’s still practiced regularly in some parts of the world) and it’s why The Passion of the Christ could only have been made by one. Kim suggests that Kang-do, with every severed arm or shattered leg, is making saints of these workers. Those who accept their fate readily are the purest and deserve the most reverence.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the imprecise but effective way Kang-do destroys human bodies is the frank simplicity with which Kim presents it. The handful of scenes that don’t revolve around violence are similarly unadorned. This means that Kim must put a good deal of trust in his actors. They don’t let him down. Jo in particular carries her scenes adroitly. An extended take of her curled up on the floor, racking with screaming sobs, is as can’t-look-away harrowing as Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” in last year’s Les Miserables.
As happens in his other films, Kim’s lead character could be working toward his own redemption or his own destruction. Possibly both. As the film goes on, though, we begin to wonder who the real main character is. Who is the person in the story who most needs redemption? The heartless thug? The mother who left? The shop owners who signed away their families’ futures? The answer can be found – or, more accurately, not found – in the titular pose. Variations on the pieta abound herein. Ultimately, who’s weeping for whom and why?