Point Of No Return – Pieta

February 22, 2013 at 9:15 PMFeb (Cinema, Literature, Musings, Slice Of Life)

[Warning: It is not advised that those who haven’t watched the film Pieta read this as it discloses the plots of the film which is a discovery one should be making while watching the film. This is not a review of the film but a reading of the film and all the opinions expressed here are that of the author who takes up the responsibility for all the opinions and observations made here which he declares as original]

pieta-poster“With its unprecedented growth for such a small country in a relatively short period of time, we tend to view South Korea as a kaleidoscope of state-of-the art electronic gadgets, a modern, puissant state, and a place where serendipity is taken for granted. We are not mistaken. Still, such achievements weigh heavily on a working class that keeps rolling the wheels of progress without enjoying many of its benefits,” is what Marta Merajver-Kurlat says while introducing Kim Ki-Duk to her readers (of ‘Kim Ki-Duk On Movies, The Visual Language’, Pub: 2009) to set up the context for the master filmmaker. But just before introducing the artists in her foreword she has just said, “You do not need to think; this is not an intellectual exercise. You need to watch, to watch carefully, and to open all your senses to what is on the screen. You will probably discover that, at some point or the other, you too were there. ‘There’ is not a physical place. It is a moment in life, suspended in mid-air; it is a sensation you cannot describe; it is a tear, a smile, a shiver. Something coming from a place with no name will pierce into some equally nameless part of you. And your emotions will flow into the river that connects the past with the future, the real with the imaginary, the doable with the impossible.”

I have quoted MMK in length to state that though the description of KKD’s films as “not a physical place” “moment in life” “suspended in mid-air” and “nameless part” holds good to most of the films made by KKD his latest film PIETA (2012) suspends the world that is suspended in the mid-air and grounds his world on the earth/soil of a “small country” where the economical achievements “weigh heavily on the working class that keeps rolling the wheels of progress without enjoying many of its benefits,” which is one of the reasons why Pieta stands out among the films of Kim-Ki-Duk.

In grounding his world on the earth Kim Ki-Duk, through Pieta, has not just portrayed the state of living in South Korea but also has created a piece of art which is a fine critique of capitalism and capital too.

***

The film in brief is about Lee Kang-Do a thirty year old orphan who works for a loan shark as a debt collector, by threatening the debtors and by crippling them in case they fail to repay the loan in order to claim the debt money through insurance. His life takes an unusual turn when Jo Min-Su enters his life claiming to be his mother and asking for forgiveness and a chance to undo the past by mothering him. This turn in life takes yet another unusual turn when it is discovered that Min-Su is the mother of one of the debtors who committed suicide after being crippled by Kang-Do and has entered the life of Kang-Do for revenge. The revenge is through affection and kindness. Creating an atmosphere of dependence and belonging for Kang-Do, Min-Su kills herself by putting up a performance of being killed and thus tortures Kang-Do. The affection and the suicide of Min-Su makes Kang-Do realize his mistakes and as an act of redemption makes him kill himself.

This is at a narrative level. But through this narrative journey unfolds the theme of the film which makes this film a dark tale that chronicles the condition of human life in a capitalist society.

The film begins with the suicide of Min-Su’s son Sang-Su. But the actual story begins with the scene of Lee Kang-Do on bed, masturbating: a self-fulfilling act with no involvement of an ‘other’. Like act of sexual intercourse in Nagisa Oshima’s ‘In The Realm Of Senses’ was a metaphor of self-absorption, masturbation in Kim Ki-Duk’s Pieta becomes a metaphor of self-fulfilling act and an act that is symbolic of self-absorption. This theme of self-absorption keeps repeating itself throughout the film. In the very next scene of the film where Myeong-Ja and Hun-Cheol are in their workshop, fearing the arrival of Kang-Do their conversation is this:

Myeong-ja: “Why would you sign the insurance?”

Hun-Cheol: “I wish I could sell even you right now.”

Hun Cheol: “Do something even you used it, dint you? But only I become a cripple?

Myeong-Ja: “You cant. Then I will have to support you.”

Just before this conversation Hun-Cheol has got a call from Won-Bong who tells him that Kang-Do can be expected anytime. In his conversation with Won-Bong, Hun-Cheol says, “Sell your house and save me,” to Won-Bong.

“I wish I could sell you,” “You can’t (because) then I will have to support you” and “Sell your house and save me,” are reflections of extreme concern about the self at the cost of the other, risking the other and being insensitive to some extent about the other. All of this is caused by the threat of loan shark, at a level of phenomena, but the relationship between the loan shark the debtor and the threat is based on capital.

pieta- meyong jaBefore Kang-Do cripples Hun-Cheol, Myeong-Ja offers herself to Kang-Do saying, “Do whatever you want but please give us two more weeks to repay the loan.” Kang-Do without touching the body of Myeong-Ja pulls out her bra and starts assaulting her with her bra. Throwing her out of the workshop Kang-Do cripples Hun-Cheol with the help of the machines in the workshop of Hun-Cheol. Its interesting to note the tools of assault. It is not external elements brought by the assaulter but are the items which have protected the attacked. This theme too gets repeated in the film, be it the role of the loan sharks who come to rescue when money is required who go on to cripple and torture later on or the role of Mi-Sun who becomes the protecting mother and then causes the destruction. The striking element is not that of the protector becoming the destructor as much as the protector being used for destruction but that protector and destructor being inseparable, the destructor being in disguise, the destructor being omnipresent and importantly the inescapability from destruction.

This inescapability from being murdered repeats itself in the film not just through human characters but also through the animals. The rooster that Kang-Do is carrying escapes when he slips on a greasy, slippery alley but is caught by Mi-Sun and gets slaughtered and cooked. The Eel is kept in the aquarium- not killed- by Kang-Do but gets chopped in the hands of Mi-Sun. The rabbit that Kang-Do brings home is freed by Mi-Sun only to be murdered by an unknown vehicle on the road. Even if one escapes (rooster), or is protected (in the aquarium like the Eel) or freed (like the rabbit) the end- of being killed- is assured.

It is a no escape situation.

When Kang-Do is about to leave after crippling Hun-Cheol he is called a “piece of shit” by Myeong-Ja. Listening to the abuse Kang-Do tells (explains/ justifies) her that people (like her and Hun-Cheol) who “irresponsibly borrow” and do not pay back are “Shit” and not him. Later in the film when Mi-Sun is missing and Kang-Do goes to his boss suspecting the boss has kidnapped Mi-Sun the boss tells him that it is not him and says that it could be one of those who he crippled. Not stopping there the boss tells him, “You were asked to collect the money and not to cripple them. You butcher.” The victims of oppression are held responsible for their condition and not the oppressive system thus asserting it to the oppressed that the oppressor is clean handed, fair minded and is not at all an oppressor, blaming the oppressed completely for his/her miserable condition. Even when Kang-Chul commits suicide by consuming pills what Kang-Do has to tell the corpse is, “Irresponsible fool,” which again blames the murdered for the murder that appears to be a suicide.

When Mi-Sun makes an entry into the house of Kang-Do she is thrown out by Kang-Do who after throwing her out of the house throws the knife in his hand at the dart board, on which he has placed a female figure. But he slips because of the flesh and blood on the floor (that of an animal) and the knife hits the window and breaks the glass. When he moves out in search of the knife Mi-Sun comes with the knife in her hand. Her hand is trembling out of anger. Kang-Do asks her to hit him but she simply returns the knife and leaves. The saga of revenge could have ended at the beginning itself. But the murder story and the story of revenge that Kim Ki-Duk wants to speak, through Pieta, is not a blooded story but of the cold-blooded murder where blood is not spilt. A bloodless murder is what an oppressive system is. It doesn’t spill blood yet murders.

pieta- forgive me i abandoned youTaking the knife Kang-Do walks to the workshop of Tae-Seang where he is with his mother. Mi-Sun follows Kang-Do when he goes to Tae-Seang. When Tae-Seang tells Kang-Do that the system (of loan sharks) is unfair for which he gets hit by Kang-Do. While Tae-Seang is being hit by Kang-Do his mother is watching her son being hit and Mi-Sun, who claims to be the mother of Kang-Do, is also watching the same incident. Here Kim Ki-Duk is reminding us to watch the film that is unfolding with very humane eyes as here we are reminded that both the agency of violence Kang-Do and the victim of violence are very normal humans like you and I who are born to humans. ‘The love of Judas’ mother for her son couldn’t have been any less than that of Mary for Jesus,’ (words of Kahlil Gibran) because the two of them were born as humans. By putting this perspective before his viewers Kim Ki-Duk asks his viewers to look at the larger scenario which turns humans violent.

This question as to what turns humans violent gets answered at two levels in the film as it progresses. Immediately after Tae-Seang is pushed from the top of a building Mi-Sun tells Kang-Do that its all her fault because she abandoned him. Though it was not Mi-Sun who abandoned Kang-Do it is true that Kang-Do’s mother abandoned him. Later in the film Tae-Seang’s mother is about to murder Mi-Sun as an act of revenge. But by then we have realized that Mi-Sun’s affection is also an act of violence to take revenge for her son’s suicide/murder. What is interesting here is the fact that an invisible or unknown “mother” has abandoned a child and this has turned humans against humans turning each of them violent against each other. If this abandonment is seen as a social-economical and political abandonment and mother as a symbol of affection and sense of security then the film is speaking of a larger reality through the characters.

After having crippled Tae-Seung and after Mi-Sun having got eel for him Kang-Do goes to Kang-Chul who before his arrival has consumed pills and killed himself. After calling Kang-Chul “irresponsible fool,” Kang-Do goes to the mother of Kang-Chul to see if somehow some amount of the loan can be gotten back. When he realizes that there is no bank account or jewellery which he can claim as a repayment he takes with him a rabbit that Kang-Chul’s mother’s companion of loneliness in the house. The last and the least possession is also snatched by the barbaric oppressors.

Once having taken the rabbit home Kang-Do calls Mi-Sun and asks her, angrily, if she is his mother. Angrily he tells her, “I lived for thirty years without a mom,” which speaks of his sense of abandonment and his anger regarding the abandonment. In this angry statement the relationship between the abandonment and the anger, which is making him violent, is established. When Mi-Sun comes home later Kang-Do just does not accept Mi-Sun as his mother. He asks for a proof. When Mi-Sun doesn’t provide any proof and take resort in apologies Kang-Do cuts a part of his body (testical) and asks Mi-Sun to eat her. He doesn’t stop with that. He pushes his hand to her vaginal area and says, “This is where I came from, isn’t it? I want to go back,” and forces himself into Mi-Sun. As violent and as disturbing as it would appear what it says is the need for Kang-Do to reunite with his past, with his mother, to go back to where the umbilical chord was not cut. At the same time it also says that violence is an equalizer in an unequal society at least for the oppressed. The act of violence involves harming the self and humiliating the other but finally it is acceptable to the agency because the self-harm and humiliating the other equalizes both the parties as victims.

pieta- graveIn an unequal society death, tragedy and pain seem to be equalizers for the oppressed mind and the sense of victimhood. Hence Kang-Do wants to pain Mi-Sun and Mi-Sun wants to pain Kang-Do. Hence Sang-Gu, Mi-Sun and Kang-Do become equal, in the end, in the burial. It is the tragedy of Mi-Sun which equalizes her with Tae-Sang’s mother who comes to murder Mi-Sun in the end, equating the two not just as mothers but also as those victims who want revenge.

After humiliating Mi-Sun and equalizing the scores of victimhood, to a certain extent, Kang-Do becomes slightly humane which becomes visible in his interaction with the next debtor he visits. The debtor is about to become a father and wants more money and is ready to get crippled but wants more money. Looking at the joy and sense of self-sacrifice that the man is ready to make for his kid Kang-Do says he is envious of the kid. Without crippling the man Kang-Do places the guitar in his hand and asks him to play the guitar for his kid. But to his surprise the man cripples himself.

Before Kang-Do places the guitar in his hand the man has told Kang-Do about his love for music and made the statement, “If I had continued with music I would have ended worse.” The system that we have invented for ourselves has moved us away from what we love with no freedom to unite with what we love. Speak of alienation from self of the self. Making this point in passing Kim Ki-Duk draws our attention to the violent system which we have built around us where even kindness (of Kang-Do to not cripple the man) is also an act of violence (as it will leave him with no money for his kid) and self-injury (physical emotional and mental) is a part of survival for surviving. The act of kindness to ask the man to play music for his son and placing the guitar in his hand is also violence within concern as it is known that if he takes guitar in his hand his condition would be worse than what it is. It is a point of no freedom and a point of no escape from bondage.

After returning from the man with the guitar without crippling him Kang-Do declares to his mother that it is his last day of working. Saying so, Kang-Do leaves for one last time. While leaving he removed the female figure on the dart board indicating that there is no target left to aim at. But Kang-Do doesn’t realize that he himself has finally become the target by withdrawing from the job and becoming soft.

The last debtor to whom Kang-Do goes keeps his hand on the machine for Kang-Do to cripple and goes on to narrate the story of his life. He says, “I lasted 50 years here and ended up with nothing. The owners get new buildings coming in. What about tenants like us?” and jumps into a philosophical question, “What is money?” and explains his position as, “I had no intentions of paying back from the start. I got it to spend like crazy, then die.” He then asks Kang-Do if he has seen Cheonggyecheon from the sky and takes him to see it from a height. While having an Ariel view of Cheonggyecheon the man tells Kang-Do, “This place is going to be gone. I came when I was 16, 50 years ago. Soon this place will be filled with high rises too.” Then the man starts climbing the stairs further. Kang-Do stops him and says, “Death will complicate the claim,” listening to which the man asks Kang-Do, “What is death?” As he climbs up Kang-Do gets down and while getting down he hears the sound of the man jumping and falling on the ground. Once he comes down he sits down for a while and sees under his feet a strip of paper which read, ‘Happy private loans.’

This interaction between the man and Kang-Do gives the history and history of the present of South Korea directly to the viewers. The quote of MMK in the beginning speaks of “achievements” which “weigh heavily on a working class” who keep “rolling the wheels of progress without enjoying much of benefits.” The same reality comes out visually and verbally as the “high rises” and how it will replace the small workshops, in which dwell the worker who do not benefit anything of the progress made by the country by their turning of the wheels but are forced to live their life completely on loans and are forced to kill themselves asking to themselves, in a state of complete hopelessness, “What is money?” and “What is death?” where the question, “What is money?” becomes a question stemming from not knowing what money is- because of poverty- and also a philosophical question dismissing the undue importance given to money the absurdity of a capital centric society, and the question “What is death?” becomes a reflection of the existential crisis of a living which welcomes death over life and also means to ask if death means only the death of the body or if death is also a condition of living in an oppressive society. While all these question starts shooting Kang-Do and the audience the filmmaker gives us a small glimpse into what gives birth to such a condition of living. Happy Private Loans- a loan shark, a pointer at the larger capital centric society, a capitalistic society. It is on that ground that Kang-Do is standing. It is on that ground that the society is built. It is on that ground that we all are living.

pieta- kang-doOn reaching home after the man jumps and kills himself, Kang-Do asks Mi-Sun the same question, “What is money?” as he is disturbed by the question and is awakened to the absurdity of the money-centric society, slightly if not completely. Mi-Sun answers: “Money is the beginning and end of all things,” to mean memory and future has no value and that money is an end in itself. A capitalistic society riding on the wheels of urbanization, globalisation, liberalisation, consumerism, has no place for nostalgia, for memory and lives without caring for the future without being concerned of the future and lives only for itself. In that sense money is the beginning and the end of all things for a money-centric society.

When Mi-Sun goes on to say that money is also “Love, honour, violence, fury, hatred, jealousy, revenge and death,” it alerts Kang-Do for he now feels someone might take revenge on him. But these words of Mi-Sun encapsulate the dramatic journey of all emotions of the film and tell what has been the moving force behind all of it. Her love (performance of) for Kang-Do, the honour (out of fear) of Kang-Do, the honour of the “high rises”, the honour of the boss, the violence of Kang-Do on everyone, her own violence on Kang-Do, her hatred for Kang-Do, Tae-Seang’s mother’s fury against Kang-Do and Mi-Sun, the fury of the man on wheel chair in Han’s Machinery, the fury of Myeong-Ja, the fury and revenge of Tae-Seang, the revenge of Mi-Sun, the revenge of Tae-Seang’s mother, the death of Sang-Gu, Mi-Sun, the man who consumed pills, the man who jumped off the building, the death of Kang-Do all are enacting themselves on the stage of money.

Kang-Do is alerted by the word revenge and fears being targeted by someone to take revenge on him for whatever he has done. He asks Mi-Sun to not open the door if anyone knocks at the door, without realizing that the real enemy who is to take revenge has already entered the house and he himself has opened the door for the enemy. This failure to locate the enemy repeats itself when Mi-Sun goes missing and Kang-Do goes to his boss, suspecting him, and then to several victims of his violence. (With the inability to locate the real enemy there is the invisibility of the real enemy, to which I will come later.)

After instructing Mi-Sun to not open the door, Kang-Do along with Mi-Sun goes out to the city. In the city, he wears a glass, with Mi-Sun and also plays with balloon which makes an unknown person comment on him (and Mi-Sun) as “retard.” This is again similar to the scene where Kang-Do involves in sexual intercourse (forcibly, hence could be called rape) with Mi-Sun which was an act to re-connect with that which was lost. Here it is to live the unlived childhood. This throws a light on the (cruel- as opposite to innocent) history that creates a Kang-Do while narrating the history (of violence and cruelty) that he has created and unleashed, without justifying him or anyone. Here again this abandonment and loss of innocence should be seen as a socio-economical and political abandonment and cruelty to understand the larger picture on violence towards which Kim Ki-Duk is trying to draw our attention. It is the failure in knowing the reason for such a drive to reconnect with the past and the past itself which makes the stranger in the street call Kang-Do a “retard.” An understanding is required to realize what the exact situation is and not a judgemental attitude which looks only at the surface of, “grown adults acting like kids” without attempting read the complexities within it. The complexities beneath the surface have the story of abandonment, the story of cruelty.

While the fight between the stranger on the street and Kang-Do takes place on the other side of the street is Tae-Seang begging. Next in the film Tae-Seang, knocks at the door of Kang-Do holings the knife around Mi-Sun’s throat and asks Kang-Do to pour petrol/ kerosene on him planning to burn him. Tae-Seang tells Kang-Do that he had insulted him before his mother when Kang-Do begs Tae-Seang to not hurt his mother. Mi-Sun saves Kang-Do and also herself by biting the hand of Tae-Seung and making place and time for Kang-Do to hit the knife on Tae-Seang’s chest.

This scene shows how the cycle of violence continues making the victim an agency of violence. The same is seen later in the film when one of the crippled man’s young son attacks Kang-Do with a pencil. It is said by the man, just before his kid attacks Kang-Do that he keeps reminding his son about what Kang-Do did to him. This becomes an indicator of violent acts sowing the seeds of violence in the hearts that have been victimised, which will bear fruits someday to keep the cycle of violence moving continuously.

pieta- motherThe very scene could also be read as Mi-Sun’s selfish act to be the avenger of Mi-Sun not allowing anybody else to be the avenger. But at the same time it could also be read as a pointer at the unconscious attachment she has started developing for Kang-Do which she herself reveals at the end of the film. Even if the latter one, which gives a human dimension to the tale of revenge and to the character of Mi-Sun, what is striking is the fact that she cannot let herself get emotionally attached to Kang-Do. She doesn’t let it happen. In the larger condition which is violent emotions have no value and no space and even if it has it is suicidal as in the case of Kang-Do for who his emotional attachment for Mi-Sun becomes suicidal. The condition created by us for ourselves has little (or no) space for emotions. Even when Mi-Sun and Kang-Do (who is more humane now) look out of the window, out of concern, to see if Tae-Seung is safe and see he taking a car but voice both their concern and their anxiety in the next moment saying, “He probably did not die, nor reported to the police.” Even if there is concern there is no place for concern as it is overpowered by other emotions of fear, of anger, of revenge. Tender feelings get crushed under the boots of the harsh emotions.

That night when Mi-Sun sleeps next to Kang-Do she extends her hand to masturbate Kang-Do. This act of satisfying him, is again an indicator of understanding him and his needs which makes her get attached to him slowly though against her will, but is also a glimpse into the violence of kindness and violence through kindness and kindness as a pathway to violence, which recurs in the film. Like Mi-Sun creates a family for Kang-Do before torturing him, she also gives him pleasure before traumatising him. In a similar way, as pointed earlier, the shark loans first extend a helping hand by providing money when required and then cripple and murder the debtors.

The film, at the level of its narrative, takes a dramatic turn next when Kang-Do declares his attachment to Mi-Sun by saying, “I am scared that you will suddenly vanish. I can’t survive being alone again,” which while showing his attachment to Mi-Sun also reflects him becoming weak with the strengthening of his emotions for Mi-Sun. In the very same scene Mi-Sun denies gifting the sweater to Kang-Do and then placing it on Sang-Gu’s body which reveals for the first time the real identity and intention of Mi-Sun.

(The filmmaker keeps sowing the doubt about Mi-Sun being the mother of Kang-Do, in audience’s mind, at regular interval before revealing making it a slow exposition. Such reminders are also places even after revealing who she is actually: her hand shivering in anger while holding the knife before returning it to Kang-Do, she singing the birthday song for Kang-Do on her son’s birthday saying its Kang-Do’s birthday without taking the name of Kang-Do while singing, she looking into the diary and shedding tears on seeing her son’s name in it, her eyes swelling with tears when asked if she had a family and if Kang-Do has a sibling etc.)

The denial of sweater is an act which indicates the emotional condition which makes a mother fail to see every boy as her son, even when she is becoming attached to that boy, because as a victim the heart is numbed and cannot see any and every boy as her son. This emotional condition is conditioned by the violence that surrounds everyday life.

At a narrative level this scene reveals the motive of Mi-Sun and sets the floor for revenge as by this point Kang-Do is also attached to Mi-Sun and thus has become weak making way for his own suicide.

When Mi-Sun goes to cover the body of Sang-Su with the sweater she has woven and to bury him, Kang-Do on not being able to find Mi-Sun gets worried and thinks his boss must have kidnapped her and goes to the boss. Before uttering any word Kang-Do says “Sorry” and without uttering any word the boss starts slapping him and says, “You ungrateful bastard. Get lost, someone else is doing it now.” This not just reflects the kind of power structure in a employer and employee relationship but also an indicator of the ruthless manner in which employees are replaced without caring for what would happen to the employee who has been replaced. When Kang-Do asks about his mother the boss says he doesn’t know and says one of those who he has crippled must have done something and says that he had asked Kang-Do to just collect money and not cripple people. This, as pointed earlier, speaks of how the oppressing force asserts it being clean and blames the victim completely. The ungrateful employer calls the employee ungrateful without considering all the work that the employee has done until then.

Kim Ki-Duk with the Golden Lion award for Pieta at the 69th Venice Film Festival

Kim Ki-Duk with the Golden Lion award for Pieta at the 69th Venice Film Festival

When Kang-Do returns home he sees Mi-Sun there and is angry and happy at the same time. Mi-Sun, who earlier told Kang-Do that it is his birthday, now while he cuts the cake asks him to plant a tree and asks him to bury her under the tree when she dies.

That night when Kang-Do sleeps next to Mi-Sun he is slapped and asked to sleep on his bed. When he asks if he did anything wrong Mi-Sun gives no answer and asks him to go water the plant. This again is an indicator of Mi-Sun getting attached to Kang-Do but forcing herself to not to. It is also an indicator of Kang-Do’s growing affection for Mi-Sun and the relationship becoming more of a mother and son relationship from the moment of Mi-Sun forcefully entering the house of Kang-Do and Kang-Do forcing himself into Mi-Sun’s body. Mi-Sun at this point realizes her growing affection for Kang-Do and fears it and at the same time realizes that the emotional ground of Kang-Do is fertile for the final act, as he has come to live the relationship as a mother-son relationship. These realizations make her prepare for the final act of revenge.

When Kang-Do is out to water the plant, Mi-Sun puts up a performance of being attacked with the phone connected to Kang-Do which makes him come home running to not find Mi-Sun at home. Now he looks through his diary to figure out who could have done. This again is an indicator of what I pointed to earlier as the inability to locate the enemy in our capital centric society.

In search of his mother Kang-Do goes to several debtors of his. The first visit of Kang-Do in search for his mother is to Han’s Machinery where a man is sitting on a wheel chair and working. Its seen that he is angry over a lot and has directed his anger towards the machine and is hitting the machine. When he sees Kang-Do in his workshop his anger melts and fear overtakes his emotions. But once Kang-Do leaves he starts hitting the machine harder saying, “I will kill you.” This displacement of anger is also the strong assaulting the weak. The man of Han’s Machinery cannot strike Kang-Do so his anger is displaced towards the machine. Kang-Do is weak before his boss so he bends and asks for forgiveness but is strong before the debtors and beats them up. Even Mi-Sun in creating the illusion of family for Kang-Do is also waiting for him to turn weak. When he is strong she lets him enter her. But while he has weakened a bit she masturbates him. When he has weakened completely she slaps him and asks him to sleep on his bed. When she is the anvil she bears and when she is the hammer she strikes. When the power equation between the two changes she is able to take revenge and be violent to Kang-Do.

In search of his mother Kang-Do next goes to Jong-Do’s place and finds his mother who takes him to the grave of Jong-Do and speaks to the grave of Jong-Do telling Jong-Do that he has a friend and goes on to say, “How nice there is a friend who still remembers you.” The fact that Kang-Do doesn’t remember Jong-Do and the fact that Jong-Do’s mother remembers Kang-Do speaks of how in the circle of violence the perpetrators of violence never know their victims nor do they remember them and how the victims of violence remember and never outgrow the memory of violence.

When Kang-Do reaches a Buddhist monastery searching for his mother he meets a monk on a wheelchair who is trying to stand on his legs to see the valley. When Kang-Do gives him a helping hand the monk tells Kang-Do, “I led a foolish life so I can’t see as much as others can.” While this scene appears unmatched to the other parts of the film it could be seen as a reminder of the theme of redemption which Kim Ki-Duk explored in Spring Summer Fall Winter And Spring and in that sense it gets connected to a later scene which I will speak of later.

pieta- invisible enemyNext Kang-Do goes to the place of Myeong-Ja and Hun-Cheol searching for his mother. We realize that now after Hun-Cheol got crippled Myeong-Ja has been earning for the family all alone by selling things next to the highway. We see how Hun-Cheol becoming physically and economically crippled has become frustrated and that, along with his physical state and his dependence of Myeong-Ja has fractured peace in their relationship and their family. Speak of what poverty and indebtedness can do to humans at an individual level and to their interpersonal relations. In the same scene we see Myeong-Ja asking Hun-Cheol to shut his mouth if he wants to be fed,” which like the authority that the loan sharks show towards their debtors is an authority that an earning member shows towards a member who doesn’t earn. The relationship becomes uneven by the power of capital. When Kang-Do arrives and Hun-Cheol asks him for money Kang-Do offers him money as a sin cleanser. This act of giving money is also because he has become slightly humane now. But Myeong-Ja rejects the money by throwing it back at him and also breaks a bottle of beer and pointing it towards him says, “If there was no law I would kill you a hundred times.” Interestingly the law couldn’t come to her help when the loan shark crippled Hun-Cheol through Kang-Do and she believes that if she attacks Kang-Do as an act of defence the law will not be in her favour because the law, in an uneven and unequal society, is with the strong and not the weak. So the law is not with the weak even when violence is perpetrated on them nor when they take refuge in counter violence to safeguard themselves. Law, like the entire system, is a game of those with the capital power.

Finally when he is at Sang-Gu’s workshop, while searching for his mother, where he sees his own photo with knife marks on it, he gets a call from his mother where he can hear his mother screaming while she is being hit. This angers and scares Kang-Do. After a while he gets a message with the photographs of a half constructed building, telling him where his mother is.

Kang-Do runs to the building and sees his mother Mi-Sun on the top of the building screaming out of fear. Just before the arrival of Kang-Do in her soliloquy Mi-Sun reveals, for the first and the only time in the film, that she is feeling bad for Kang-Do but again the circle of violence is such that it doesn’t let her bleed for anyone and prepares her for the last piece of her violence towards Kang-Do. In actuality nobody has taken Mi-Sun to the top and nobody is pushing her. But she puts up a performance as though somebody is about to push her from the top. Seeing his mother stand on the edge of the building top Kang-Do assumes someone is behind her and will push her down. In his assumption he pleads to the assumed person who is about to push to not punish his mother and confesses that it is all his mistake and his mother should not be punished for his mistakes.

pieta collageThis is a scene where cruelty and violence is at the peak and love and care deep (literally too). But what is striking in this scene is the invisibility of the enemy. Capital centric society unlike feudal society and earlier forms of society where the enemy in the form of feudal lord, politician etc are visible, has made not just villains out of every human but also has kept the real villain invisible which has made fight against capitalism extremely difficult. In a capitalist globalized privatized consumerist society TV is a villain yet the villain is not the TV set, money is the villain yet its not the money in the form of currency note and coins. Villain in a capital centric society is a force that is invisible which is a murderous force killing all of humaneness and unleashing violence completely. The mother, an embodiment of affection, care and sense of security, is being murdered by an invisible villain. At the same time the guilty is pleading and confessing before a non-existent listener which speaks of the absence of a confession box which allows humans to cleanse their sin and start life all over again. The absence of a confession box makes cleansing of sin and returning to life impossible. The invisible villain not just kills the humane elements in the society but also erases the opportunity to return to life after making every human a tool of violence. There is no redemption and hence the Buddhist monastery is empty and isolated.

When Mi-Sun jumps and kills herself Tae-Seung’s mother is about to push her which indicates the circle of violence, as mentioned earlier.

Once Mi-Sun jumps and kills herself Kang-Do as promised prepares for her burial under the plant that he planted. While digging the grave for her he finds the corpse of Sang-Gu with the sweater which earlier he assumed as his gift and which Mi-Sun refused to give him. This clears the entire story for Kang-Do in his mind. Burying Mi-Sun next to her son Kang-Do sleeps for a while next to Mi-Sun holding her arms. This, as said earlier, is a symbol of death tragedy and pain alone being the equalizers and uniting force in an unequal and unfair world that we have created for ourselves.

The absence of a confession box allowing to cleanse one’s sin and to return to life leaves the sinner, who is also a victim, with only one way to redeem himself. The final step that Kang-Do takes is to tie himself under the truck of Myeong-Ja and be pulled on the road as the truck moves and thus kill himself. Death becomes the only sin cleansing act because life has become so intermixed with violence that it has reached a point of no return.

As the truck moves and Kang-Do is killed we see the image becoming metaphor and we realize that right in the middle of the clean roads of spectacular looking Korea there is blood and murder happening which is goes unnoticed by those travelling on the same road. The murder happening right under their nose, their truck and right under them goes unnoticed because like the villain the murder is also invisible. Murdered is also a murderer. Murderer is also a murdered. Both are just two small clips in the long chain of violence. In this chain of violence self becomes a tool of violence, self-destruction too becomes a tool of violence. Affection becomes a performance and a tool for violence, kindness becomes an agency of violence, where violence becomes a ‘duty’ for several people. Every violence leading only and only to destruction.

Myeong-Ja doesn’t realize she becoming the murderer like Kang-Do never realized himself being the murderer of Sang-Gu, of Kang-Chul, of the man who jumped off the building. From Sang-Gu to the man who consumes pills and does to the man who falls from the top of the building and dies to Mi-Sun to Kang-Do everyone’s death is a murder and suicide at the same time through which the films speaks of the murderous society we have built with our own hands which has been nothing but a suicidal act for the whole of society.

Death is the only thing that appears when there is no life to look forward and there is no way to get back to life as life has reached a point of no return. Only life can be brought to an end in a situation where violence cannot be brought to an end. Has society also reached a point of no return? Is capitalism the last act of human society to end with death? Was the beginning of a capitalist society truly an end of history?

The last shot, that of hills, probably, is Kim Ki-Duk’s prayer to the nature saying, “Have mercy on us,” which is the Italian meaning of the word Pieta.

***

Continuing her introduction of Kim Ki-Duk after locating the space, time and condition of the space and time of Kim Ki-Duk, Marta Merajver-Kurlat writes, “It is striking that in this time, as in others before, one individual should rise above his class, his life circumstances, the toils he seemed to be destines to, to stand out as a great creator, one who is saluted as such by the globalized world.” Truly Kim Ki-Duk is one such creator. Salutations.

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1 Comment

  1. Smita said,

    Really enjoyed reading this. Surely the reasons we get some images and respond to particular stories come from what we consider worthy of engaging with in life. At the same time merely the subject matter and it’s political strength is not the most compelling reason for me to engage with a film. I can read what you have written and be terribly moved. I can watch a documentary and be moved. When I saw the film, other things got in the way. Not violence, perhaps the directness, the blunt way it went about hammering the points. With no reprieve, no persuasion in it’s structure. Pretty much like Kang-Do who’s very arrival spells doom for his victims, (although he does get some exculpation in death)!

    But after reading this post I have a feeling that my ideas about what a ‘good’ or fulfilling film should have are slightly open now. I may have missed, with a particularly harsh deliberation, some of the points you make. Especially the ending and your interpretation of it. Just for that I would revisit (in my head, not watch it again!) the entire film.

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