There’s a discernible difference between vulgar auteurism and plain vulgarity-as-auteurism, one that vulgur-auteur exemplar Michael Mann seems to have missed when his jury awarded Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and one which the film illustrates rather handily. Working critical definitions of vulgar auteurism, however loosely demarcated, seem to privilege the harmony of a broad value like entertainment with certain thematic and aesthetic continuities established across a filmmaker’s body of work. Here, “vulgar” is something of a snide come-on used to backhandedly commend the appealingly loutish, rougher-hewn charms of filmmakers ranging from John Boorman and Don Siegel to Neveldine/Taylor and, yes, Michael Bay. Even by South Korean standards, Kim Jee-woon’s more of a proper vulgar auteur than Kim Ki-duk.
The film exists at the opposite end of vulgar auteurism’s concord between entertainment and aesthetic consistency. It’s brutal—not so much in its violence, though there’s some of that too, as in its flabbergasting tedium—and utterly artless. It makes an exaggerated, undeserved show of its cruelty, indignity, and aspirations of importance. Its lousiness is so consummate that it equitably merits the use of that critical bugbear word, the one so often misapplied by befuddled viewers at a loss to engage with what they’re seeing, the one that should be cradled safely behind tempered break-in-case-of-emergency glass for absolute, last-ditch, no-alternative use. It’s pretentious.
Pieta opens on a rusted, grimy chain lowering from the ceiling as an as-yet-unidentified man drapes it around his own neck—a makeshift, heavy-duty noose that denotes the grungy aesthetic chokehold Kim’s film snares the viewer in from its earliest frames. The identity of this despairing character would ostensibly function as the story’s first mystery, designed to pique curiosity in what follows, if what follows didn’t so thoroughly snuff out any flames of interest or intrigue.
For its first act, Pieta tails loan collector Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) as he masturbates himself awake, dresses, and patrols a grubby, post-post-industrial any-neighborhood—a network of metal fabricators working behind garage doors dotted by blown-out apartment complexes at its sandy periphery. The intimations of Lee’s nastiness—and the film’s stupidity—come early, his apartment furnished with chunks of purplish meat of spurious provenance in the bathroom, a knife pierced through a crude drawing of a woman’s breast near the door.
Lee’s routine of sleep, self-pleasure, and affectless violence aimed at the hopeless and destitute without the means to pay back the exorbitant interest on their loans is ruptured when a woman (Cho Min-soo) arrives at his door and begins playing the role of his long-absent mother. Because this is a Kim film, where that Fundamental Human Disconnect that serves as the structuring absence for so much art-house-cinema-as-student-film-thesis can only be sufficiently sutured by acts of tasteless, dull provocation, the two engage in all matter of wannabe-shocking perversions—cannibalism, incest, etc.—presumably as a way of assessing the limits of their fealty to one another.
Kim’s provocations ring so profoundly hollow that it’s frankly astounding that they’ve managed to register with anyone at all, let alone the purveyors of one of world cinema’s major prizes. The manner in which the filmmaker, like the staunchest secret conservatives, fervently prods taboos only serves to reinforce them. Unlike someone like Lars von Trier, who can also trade in this stuff, albeit a bit more delicately, and if not delicately then at least gamely, Kim peddles toxic articulations of human cruelty and sexuality that aren’t meaningfully transgressive and challenging as plain ugly and boring.
Ditto the filmmaking, which feels compensatory in its polish, as if Kim’s trying to buff over the crack’s in Pieta’s fundamentals. In one scene, Lee carefully calculates the weight of his victim against the height of a fall, that he may gauge the velocity to ensure an appropriate crippling. Kim’s approach feels similarly tuned; he may be dead-eyed and pitiless, but at least he’s precise. Other touches undermine even this basic veneer of competence, such as a clock turned sideways for no expressive reason, the camera shaking in tune as Lee slaps around a debtor as if in a bid for someone, anyone, to exclaim, “It’s so visceral!” And Kim’s dialogue, which basically amounts to back and forths of “Evil bitch!” and “Crazy bastard!” for 90-plus minutes, has the ring of teenagers who’ve just learned swear words yelling at each other.
Kim seems to work in a register of acutely self-conscious import filmmaking that, blissfully, doesn’t really exist anymore—if it ever did. Right out of the box, Pieta plays like the mean value of certain moronic conceptions of art-house cinema: a shapeless bundle of Provocations and Themes and Ideas verging on po-faced self-parody. There is, perhaps, a great movie to be made about a contemporary lone-wolf debt collector. Imagine it: stalking the streets like a narrow-eyed fiscal Terminator, shaking down deadbeats without the capital to back their desperate loans, piling injury upon injury out of pure instinct (and instead of working out a tenable installment plan), sophisticatedly commenting on the zero-sum substance of a whole culture erected on the rickety foundations of credit and debt, and without lapsing into spiked shock tactics fit for a Dimension Extreme DVD. That Pieta, in all its overwhelming tedium, invites you to envision this hypothetical other movie may well be its greatest, its only, virtue.