In the long history of Asian genre directors crossing over into English-language films, Chan-wook Parks’ Stoker, a deliriously directed noirsih thriller, is the cream of the crop. Unlike this year’s other Korean-directed thriller Jee-woon Kim’s The Last Stand, Park’s devilish film about nebbish teenager disturbed by the arrival of her long lost Uncle bristles with cinematic ingenuity and with a kind of inspired unconventionality not seen since the bombastic heyday of Brian De Palma.
Stoker (2013) dir. Chan-wook Park
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver, Dermot Mulroney
Off the top we’re introduced to India Stoker (Wasikowska) grieving the death of her father Richard (Mulroney). Their home, a lavish but secluded estate, occupied also by India’s peculiar and distant mother Evelyn (Kidman) and her doting caretaker Mrs. McGarrick, creates an eerie feeling of loneliness. India’s attire which seems to be borrowed from Tim Burton’s wardrobe, has the lovely Mia Wasikowska stuffed into a sexually inhibiting Victorian dress and her black ravenesque hair covering her beautiful face.
Park’s compositions crush India within the frame. Often she’s sitting in an oversized chair or reading an ovesized book passively imposing inferiority to her. Or when she’s framed awkwardly in the lower half of the picture, often looking up at the other characters she’s in a submissive position.
When Charles Stoker (Goode), Richard elusive brother and India’s uncle, arrives the mood changes significantly from mourning to dreadfully uncomfortable. Something’s rotten in the Stoker household and Chan-wook Park relishes the awkwardness with delicious unconventionality. One memorable scene, a loaded confrontation of Charles’ questionable absence all these years, occurs in the intersection of three hallways and a kitchen. What could have been a rudimentary and unmemorable three-way dialogue scene, under Park’s robust compositions and uncomfortable editing, becomes a scene loaded with subtext and rich cinematic flavour.
While the story, as written by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller (good on him), plays out the mystery of Charles and his threats to the Stoker family in a traditional manner, not a single shot in the film is traditional. Nothing is taken for granted by Park – laying out all his cinematic tools to impress us, an approach which reminds us of Brian DePalma’s modus operandi, a man who consistently resisted the boredom of visually conventional storytelling. Stoker thus feels like his American audition tape.
The theme of sexuality also echoes DePalma’s predilections. India’s journey from a sexually repressed wallflower picked on by her repulsive high school peers blossoms dramatically via the incestually teasing of her Uncle culminating in the film’s audacious and steamy masturbation scene in the final act. We can’t help but see some of Carrie in India Stoker.
Stoker is not without a strong sense of humour. The off-the-wall characterizations of all the Stokers occupy a completely separate plane of cinema reality. We’re never meant to believe these characters exist except in movie-reality. Thus we are free to find delight in Park’s conscious depiction of Charles’ belt as a weapon as powerful and iconic as Jack Torrence’s ax or Jason Vorhees’ machete.
After the dramatic revelations we’re left with a feeling of dizzying admiration, the way Hitchcock entertained his audiences, ‘to give them pleasure – the same pleasure they have when waking up from a nightmare.”