AS A FILMMAKER, Kim Ki-duk has never been one to shy away from things that make people yark. (His breakthrough film, 2000's The Isle, unforgettably featured fishhooks going where fishhooks should never go.) What separates his work from the rest of the South Korean "new extreme wave," however, is a vein of melancholy reflection, which serves to place the viewer—however unwillingly—inside the headspace of his mostly mute protagonists. No matter how grotesque the acts in his movies (which include 3-Iron, Bad Guy, and the wicked plastic-surgery fable Time), Kim's talents still make them feel tethered to reality.
Mostly, anyway. Pieta, the director's 18th film (and the winner of the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival) stands as one of the few instances in his career where the gratuitous moments feel, well, gratuitous. Although the heavily Oedipal narrative contains no small amount of fascination, and even a weird gallows beauty, the taboo signal-to-noise ratio feels off.
Beginning with a mysterious snippet of wheelchair-aided violence, the story follows an emotionless loan enforcer (the Walken-faced Lee Jung-jin) whose daily routine involves crippling his hapless clients and then taking a cut out of the health insurance. Things take a turn with the arrival of a woman (Cho Min-soo) claiming to be his mother. Cannibalism, kidnappings, and all sorts of Freudian violations follow. Audiences in the mood for a jolt will undoubtedly find much to discuss afterward—a particular shot that slows a Wile E. Coyote gag down to deadpan art-house speed will be one for the books—but it's difficult getting past what feels like the director's inordinate, self-congratulatory glee over getting the viewer to wuss out. He's having his cake, and chewing it with his mouth open, too.