The central character in Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s “Pieta” is cold, efficient and brutal — just like the movie, which is impressively crafted but difficult to watch.
Baby-faced, mop-topped Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a collector for a loan shark in Seoul. He lives and works in a shabby neighborhood full of small machine shops, whose power tools he sometimes uses to mangle people who are late with payments. Kim presents poverty as disfiguring and economics as a mechanism that can mutilate just as surely as an industrial drill.
Although “Pieta” is savage, it doesn’t rival the bloodiness of such Korean cult hits as “Oldboy” and “I Saw the Devil,” or Kim’s notorious “The Isle.” Most of the violence occurs off screen, vividly suggested by sound and movement. In one scene, Kang-do slaps a man, and the camera jerks each time a blow is heard.
Although he can show tenderness toward animals, Kang-do doesn’t have much interest in other people, male or female. He’s totally unprepared for the arrival of Min-sun (Cho Min-soo), who claims to be the mother who abandoned him when he was an infant. He repeatedly sends her away, but she always returns.
Unable to dissuade her, Kang-do subjects Min-sun to two tests that most mothers would not pass. But she does, with saintly forbearance, so Kang-do accepts her. Having someone to care about changes his behavior, and perhaps even his character. The transformed Kang-do verges on being nice, although Kim usually follows such moments with a blackly ironic kicker.
The director is best known in the United States for his 2003 film “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . And Spring,” a Buddhist parable that’s relatively serene (although not without violent outbursts). But Kim was raised as a Christian and has used — some might say misused — ideas from that religion in such previous movies as “Samaritan Girl.” He adds a fascination with martyrdom to Korean cinema’s customary obsession with revenge.
Kim studied art in Paris, where there are more than a few examples of the Pieta. In those paintings and sculptures, Mary cradles the corpse of Jesus and laments. In titling his 18th movie “Pieta,” however, the filmmaker doesn’t necessarily mean that Min-sun will mourn the death of her son. There are several ways the movie’s plot can potentially twist.
Filmed simply and intimately, “Pieta” benefits from a strong sense of place, as well as fully committed performances from Lee and Cho. Some of the events might seem farcical if not for the actors’ unwavering intensity. The final development is absurd, shocking and — like the rest of the movie — utterly assured.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At Angelika Film Center. Contains violence, profanity, rape and sexual situations. In Korean with subtitles. 104 minutes.