Kang-Do (Jeong-jin Lee) is a savage brute, but that’s what his employment requires of him. Kang-Do works for a loan shark and his role is to get his boss’s money back from his customers, with outrageous interest rates – naturally. Kang-Do’s method is particularly vicious and his poverty stricken clients are utterly terrified by his shocking plans to retrieve the large sums of money owed simply because they cannot keep up with the steep return rates. Kang-Do forces his clients to sign over their insurance policies to him then inflicts disabling injuries upon them using the very industrial machinery they use to earn their meagre livings. Large sums of money are paid out for personal injury claims but the money goes directly to Kang-Do. This tactic has driven some of his clients to suicide. Everyone lives in fear of Kang-Do, except for a strange woman, who starts following him around, apparently obsessed by him. She is Mi-Son (Min-soo Jo) and she claims to be his long-lost mother. Kang-Do has had no contact with her since his birth and is not convinced that she really is his mother. Slowly, a tentative relationship develops between them. But Kang-Do still has his work, even as those who have suffered as a result of his savage ways are learning to adapt to their new lives.

Despite a brief reprise from filmmaking that was documented with the deeply personal Arirang (2011) Ki-duk Kim’s large body of work demonstrates strong use of characterisation and an intense exploration of relationships that can range from passion to violence – sometimes simultaneously. These include such films as The Isle (2000) and Bad Guy to the almost entirely visual 3 Iron(2004). In many ways Kim has a thoroughly auteuristic approach to his works, often writing as well as directing his films, and, in cases like Pieta, editing as well. This has resulted in critical appreciation for his films which are always distinctive as his, even when they apparently follow a standard narrative, but he has also received criticism for some of the violence depicted, which can be extremely upsetting. Pieta more than emphasises these aspects by taking elements of the story to include ethical and religious themes amidst the occasionally bone-crunching violence, but Kim is careful with its implementation to ensure that its depiction is never gratuitously graphic or exploitational beyond the necessity of the story and characterisation. Pieta starts languidly but the pace soon picks up and revenge becomes its primary theme.

Machinery plays a central role in this story and the setting – the lives of the characters are inextricably interwoven with their environment. They all have tiny workshops and fulfil small orders, for which they are horribly underpaid, hence the need to use loan sharks to make ends meet. The machinery itself, their only source of income, becomes the means by which the client is disabled, hence providing the big pay-off for Kang-Do. Death is not a requirement, merely disablement. Machinery seems to fascinate Kim – in Arirang, we learned that he is actually an accomplished craftsman.

Pieta is an odd film – a revenge thriller that is savage and brutal, and yet the characterisation ensures that – somewhat surprisingly – the audience engages emotionally with all the protagonists. Recommended viewing.

Pieta is released on DVD on 14th October.