South Korean provocateur Kim Ki-duk's new film "Pieta," about a cold, wraith-like loan-shark enforcer in a poverty-stricken village, is expectedly gruesome in some of its details. But it's the explicitness about capitalism's emotional wreckage that gives this micro-budgeted drama a gut-punch heft.
Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin, working a thousand-yard stare) slaps, breaks, tortures and cripples the desperate small-time machinists of cramped, industrial Cheonggyecheon who owe his boss money. But when a mysterious older woman (Cho Min-soo) shows up at his door, begging forgiveness for abandoning him as an infant, the possibility of redemption upends Kang-do, opening the door for a tale of grim vengeance.
Shot cheaply and obviously on digital video, Kim's economy of filmmaking helps ensure that the darkest corners of "Pieta" — including the claustrophobic shops, alleyways and living spaces — take center stage rather than the plot's inherent melodrama. The snapshot portraits of Kang-do's victims are harrowing too in their crowded desperation.
It's a cruel, sad world Kim sees, one in which the pursuit of money and the absence of love create a machine that cranks out vicious and/or downtrodden people like so many metal parts from a factory. "Pieta," which won last year's Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is disturbing, for sure, but its larger points save it from being a quick and dirty wallow.
"Pieta." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. Playing at Laemmle Music Hall