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Pieta Tells of Redemption and Rebirth and Mother-son Handjobs

A Jesus-and-Mary dynamic becomes psychosexually twisted—replete with a horrific mother-son handjob—in Pietà, an intriguing tale of redemption and rebirth from director Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring; 3-Iron) that eventually segues into a more conventional revenge drama. Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a loan shark who cripples deadbeats in order to collect his money via insurance payouts; his life is upended after he's approached by a woman (Cho Min-soo) claiming to be his long-lost mom. This maternal figure soon transforms the thug through her saintly remorse for abandoning Kang-do and her benevolence toward him despite his nasty profession. It's during the first hour, however, that Kim's expertly modulated morality play is most gripping, presenting Kang-do's hand-smashing, leg-breaking brutality for profit as a reflection of a Korean society in which the industrial working class is crushed underfoot by corporate capitalist development. Alas, after establishing a central parent-child relationship rife with wacko biblical undertones, the director finds nowhere to take his story except into standard vengeance territory, a twist that leads to rote suspense that isn't enlivened by the climax's telegraphed ironies. A coda strives to capture a sense of tragically earned transcendence, but the film is far more fascinating when mucking around in hell.

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