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Review: ‘Pieta’

Twisted Korean Tale Of Motherly Love

One of the ads for

Credit: Drafthouse Films

Above: One of the ads for "Pieta" invoking Michelangelo's famous statue of the Virgin Mary holding Christ's dead body.

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Pieta."


The South Korean film "Pieta" (opening May 17 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium 15) had its San Diego premiere at Pac-Arts' Spring Showcase earlier this year. It now returns for a theatrical run.

The term "pieta" refers to a representation of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ. It’s also the name of a Korean film but it's a film that serves up a very twisted take on motherly devotion.

Korean cinema often presents torn emotions and aching sadness that seems influenced by the fact it’s a country divided with family members sometimes ending up on opposite sides of the border. Filmmakers don’t address this directly but rather come at it subversively through genre films in which characters find their loyalties split. Films ranging from the war-themed "Tae Guk Gi" to the tragic "Peppermint Candy" to the extreme "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" to the gangster pic "A Bittersweet Life," all suggest that whatever we may initially think, choosing sides is not easy or black and white.

And what better way to reflect Korea’s particular pain than by presenting us with a mother -- bent on revenge -- who finds herself pulled in two different directions. In "Pieta," director Kim Ki-Duk gives us the brutal loan shark Kang-do whose life’s disrupted when a strange woman arrives at his door, and then forces her way in and starts doing his dishes. Kang-do tries to get rid of the woman but she claims to be the mother who abandoned him at birth.

Kang-do had resigned himself to being a loner with no family so the sudden appearance of a mother proves a seismic shift in his life. As the story plays out, the characters’ emotions and our own become violently conflicted as Kim presents us with a world where nothing’s black and white, only troubling shades of gray. Kim’s a master at delivering grueling dramas that lead us in one direction only to abruptly jerk us in another. His films are superbly crafted and layered with social commentary not only about the strains of a nation split in two but also about a country that’s leaving some of its people out of its economic progress.

"Pieta" (unrated and in Korean with English subtitles) is a riveting, emotionally agonizing, yet artistically exhilarating film.

Companion viewing: "Mother" (Korean one not Albert Brooks's one), "Bad Guy," "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance"

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