After Chan-wook Park blew me away with his Vengeance Trilogy, a collection of perfectly executed and wildly stylistically disparate films, I had to seek out the rest of his filmography. Or at least watch whatever else was on Netflix. Which brought me to Stoker, Chan-wook Park’s English language debut. It blew me away. It probably shouldn’t have, given that his past films cleanly acculturate heterogenous filmic sub-genres with consummate skill, but Stoker was still so good that it caught me off guard. It struck my brain in a delightfully unexpected way. Maybe I’m just so cynical that any truly great film will always surprise me. Because certainly Stoker qualifies as a great film.
Stoker is a complex and multitudinous, multifaceted film in nature. At its least hewn and carved, the film is a coming of age story revolving around a girl named India. Taken at its most superficial, it’s a sumptuous psychological thriller set mainly in a lavish upper class manor. It’s actually more than either of these things, and more than whatever a combination of the two might imply. On another level it’s absolutely exploitive, vaguely eroticized b-movie schlock. On another level it’s a Hitchcock homage. A story about family. A straightforward horror movie. A movie about mysterious pasts associated with a dead parent (I know it’s a trope, but is it a genre? And if so what’s the term?). A riff on Alice in Wonderland. A supernatural-free vampire film. There’s even a touch of school yard drama. And somehow every one of these distinct portions comes together to form a coherent piece of art.
So basically Chan-wook Park is a genius.
A hypnotically transient director who still maintains a clear identity of his own? Fuck, that’s incredible. And incredibly rare.
And Stoker is clearly a Chan-wook Park film. For one thing this movie reinstates the fascination with sound and background noises that popped up in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. In that movie one of the main characters was deaf, which was the justification for a unique soundscape built up from various ambient background noises. Trickling water, air conditioners, traffic, and half-heard neighbouring apartments all created a wonderful sense of realism that was integral to the film’s representational nature. In Stoker the main character is gifted with incredible hearing, which manifests in a similar effect used to achieve different ends. Instead of highlighting a sense of monotony and mundanity, the effects create a drippingly opulent sonic landscape. This luxurious, luring background is absolutely essential to the tone the movie strives for, and it’s so wonderfully enthralling I procured my finest headphones to better appreciate it.
There are other telltale flourishes scattered like signatures in a comic book throughout the film. Chan-wook Park is a director who loves his interesting transitions. Like George Lucas, if George Lucas put more than a modicum of thought into his choices. And Park’s tend to be either gentler, or built from specific shapes in the shots. There’s also the typical use of symbolism that runs through Park’s films. It’s hardly a symbolist work, in the way Lady Vengeance was, but there are still a few resonant motifs. The shoes, the spider, the piano, the belt, and the glasses. Things have a habit of slowly developing symbolic meaning throughout the film. Like one item in Stoker, which at first isn’t overly significant in its transference, except as a clue, but by the end the possession of the item is a menacing and dramatic statement. He’s a very symbol-minded director.
Perhaps the most significant way Park imbrues his film is in the way he adopts the language of an entirely different type of movie from his past work. If Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was a blend of the Coens and Kurasawa, then Oldboy was Tarantino by way of Scorsese, then Lady Vengeance was his New Wave film, then Stoker is his Hitchcockian thriller. It’s hard not to feel the shadow of the great master of suspense during scenes like the freezer sequence. This sees India Stoker creeping through her eerie basement to get to a freezer. There is only one source of light – an overhead light on a chain that swings back and forth. Park cuts back and forth to a different scene as the light swings. The entire thing feels like it could be ripped from Psycho. Except it’s not, and I certainly can’t recall a scene quite like it from anything else. (I’m not proposing it’s entirely original, but there’s something about the cuts and the scenes that lends it a fairly idiosyncratic quality.)
“Park says he actually had to strip the script – originally written by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller – of Hitchcock references; he has talked about the British director’s influence on his work many times in the past, but he didn’t want to tread directly in the legend’s deep footsteps. Nor was Park especially inspired by the Nashville locations, or by the idea of making a film about America: the majority of the action takes place on the Stoker estate, from which he tried to expunge anything that would locate it in a particular region. It was the simple confined family drama that interested him, around which he could build his “gothic fairytale”, filled with his own personal meanings.” [From The Guardian]
“Well, let us speak to the influence of Hitchcock, which was already found in Wentworth Miller’s script. The most obvious one that inspired the script was “Shadow of a Doubt.” And I didn’t ever intend to draw any more from Hitchcock than was already in there. In fact, I wondered if I should take out some of those Hitchcockian elements in the script. But then I thought better of it, because if I took that stuff out, given the characters and structure of the film, it was hard to get rid of the shadow of “Shadow of a Doubt.” Instead, I chose to accept those Hitchcockian influences and decided to make that one of the layers of this film, one of the interpretations of this film it would lend itself to.” [From Indiewire]
This movie also strays closer to conventional plot twists and reveals than any of his other films, excluding Oldboy. Oldboy became famous, in part, for a single powerful reveal at the climax of the film. The other movies took unanticipated turns, but none of them had the same sort of last-act peripeteia. Stoker has a fairly standard mystery running though it, which means there are several discovers as the film progresses. The first is effective but unsurprising, a fairly typical anagnorisis. The best reveal comes later, and also qualifies as an anagnorisis. (The shower scene, for those who have seen the film.) This is a stunning moment filled with unfurling meanings and flashbacks. It’s pretty chilling, and yet a clumsier touch would’ve rendered it completely crude and offensive. It’s a deft hand that managed to finesse the concept into a palatable and effective scene.
Indeed it’s a wonderfully collaborative standard that lends the film its sumptuous surface. The entire film just feels lavish, like a classical piano piece draped in silk. Of course it’s all the more haunting for the rising menacing notes that build throughout what was initially a wistful piece. The cinematography from frequent Chan-wook Park collaborator Chung-hoon Chung is daring and sun kissed. Light traipsing sun and gardens contrast with harsh contrasted lighting and unexpected and off kilter camera angles. Chung-hoon Chung seems to understand the power of a carefully placed unusual camera angle, and uses them to great effect throughout the film. Coupled with Chan-wook Park’s interesting edits and montages and digital trickery, this makes the entire film stunningly visually unique. The soundtrack, by frequent Darren Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell, is mainly backgrounded for the gossamer background noises, but when it peeks through it lends the movie another layer of elegance and emotional impact. These contributions are pretty much indispensable to the film.
Also indispensable: the actors. At the most there are nine characters in the movie with multiple lines, but most of the film taps out at four characters in a scene, and even more of the movie is just India, or her mother, or her uncle. Mia Wasikowska gives a deft performance as India Stoker. The movie is ultimately and most significantly her story, and she is tasked with a compelling challenge. She has to both carry the movie and come across as emotionally raw, yet simultaneously repressed. She more than pulls it off, and watching her character develop is gripping and sympathetic, until exactly when it shouldn’t be. At that point India becomes frightening indeed. Her mother, Evelyn Stoker, is played by the well cast Nicole Kidman. Kidman is nicely capable of playing the emotionally stunted, brittle upper class matriarch. She seems every bit as damaged and self-deluded as she needs to. Charles Stoker, India’s secretive and menacing uncle, is played by Mathew Goode, the guy who played Ozymandias in Watchmen. He’s suave sociopathy embodied. He actually manages more than that too. Later on in the movie he comes across as more than a little pitiful. He’s clearly channelling Anthony Perkins in the movie, while also trying to come across as some sort of sexy upper class patriarch. He straddles these lines skillfully.
Lets get a little SPOILERY now. The story starts with India’s eighteenth birthday and the funeral of her father. After the funeral she spots a mysterious figure, who turns out to be her long absent uncle, Charles Stoker. Charles slowly starts to worm his way into the family’s life. He starts slowly seducing Evelyn and seemingly removes any obstacles between him and his newly found role. It becomes clear that he’s murdering people, starting with the Stoker family’s housekeeper. Later he kills an elderly relative. This is easily the least surprising reveal in the film, but it’s still a little disconcerting. The whole movie kind of feels like an indrawn breath, just building anticipation, and it absolutely doesn’t release it until the very end of the movie. The effect of this is that all these little reveals just tighten the tension. I don’t actually want to talk much about the rest of the plot, so let’s call the END of the SPOILERS.
Chan-wook Park is clearly an insanely talented director. His clear experimentation and forced personal growth is fascinating. Most directors are sort of like your average professional athlete – they try to perfect one specific corner of the field. Chan-wook Park may have a fairly honed sense of style and some recurring fascinations, but each of his movies are wildly different in their core presentation and nature. To dabble in presentational symbolism, then jump over to a conventional thriller, then adopt a whole different style again and again and again is bloody remarkable. He is an intensely talented director. I will certainly take a deep breath and wait for his next projects.