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Quendrith Johnson

Quendrith Johnson is Los Angeles Correspondent covering everything happening in film in Hollywood... Well, the most interesting things, anyway.
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A Moment with Kim Ki-duk in LA for PIETA

 by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

While Kim Ki-duk has been building an international presence for years with films that are often crushing in their ability to communicate the human condition, PIETA, his 18th film may very well mark his breakout in the American market. 


For PIETA, which screened at AFI's Film Fest on Nov. 2, Kim surfs the zeitgeist of global unrest in a tumultuous economic climate with an exploration of an unusual 'mother-son' dynamic that manages to touch on talking points for every culture engaged in commerce. One of the key points is that "ultimately, we will end up becoming a money to each other," according to the director's comments.


PIETA probes the not-often-seen well of human cruelty in its transactional form. But this is no ordinary tale of a loan shark banging on doors to collect debts, it is a searing indictment of  a high-interest racket that extracts an unimaginable physical and psychological toll on its borrowers. 


The money-shot in this grueling saga is the violation of that most sacred bond between mother and child, or so the audience is led to believe. When the mother kills a live eel in a graphic visual beheading, the fate of this unwitting loan shark is sealed with this violent gesture that is required to feed him. Animal innards are depicted as a significant visual clue to the emotional evisceration to come. The story ostensibly is about money, but the currency is that of human dignity.


And herein emerges the cinematic prowess of Kim Ki-duk as he manages to tease out a faux Oedipal heart-wrencher that Hitchcock and Tarantino would admire, with Kim's own leanings and influences of fellow countrymen like director IM Kwon-taek, as well as "so many (auteurs) it is impossible to mention them all." 


Kim credits Michael Mann and Paul Thomas Anderson for bringing him to Venice, where he won the Golden Lion earlier this year in a surprise upset up against Anderson's THE MASTER. And now PIETA has been named the official Oscar contender from Korea.


In his introduction to the AFI screening, Kim admitted that "the first 20 minutes" will be rough going. For the Q & A afterward, he said, through the translator, "what you are seeing on screen is my beating heart." He also pointedly mentioned American economic hardships as a focal point for the film, that the suffering brought from unchecked capitalism depicted is not only relevant but hopefully revelatory.


Taboo-laden, PIETA is no doubt less shocking than the effects of true economic chaos Kim Ki-duk has observed in his own life and times. At 15, he was a manual laborer in the trenches in Cheonggyecheon during an era when his own country's economic engine roared onto the world stage with an unprecedented tech boom. The displacement and last vestiges of a manufacturing/industrial-labor based system feature heavily in the film.


In person, Kim Ki-duk is deceptively unassuming. His background studying in Paris and other Western exposure is offset by his traditional cultural attire. He does not speak English, and uses a translator for the evening's interactions on the occasion of the AFI event. His presence at the afterparty is chin-turning in light of what has just unspooled on screen, with an off-handed complexity that doesn't dissipate easily. 


The rage/revenge dynamic displayed in PIETA draws you into the title, which the 52-year-old director says means "'God, have mercy on us.'"  When pressed about his personal tastes in film, he says, in shorthand through the translator, "people and people. Stories about people." 


For Kim Ki-duk, this may be his Oscar year, and with it a worldwide platform for a movie that was shot for $100,000 in en era when $100 million is the norm. The emotional costs will be much higher for audiences as they come to terms with the film's message, and its striking impact from an undeniable newly minted auteur of world cinema.


PIETA stars Cho Min-soo as the "Mysterious woman" who claims she is the mother of the cold-blooded loan shark played by Lee Jung-jin. Their performances pay off in spades for the director.


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About Quendrith Johnson

Johnson Quendrith

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