Park Chan-Wook makes his North American debut with ‘Stoker’, which is currently in limited release. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, Mr.Chan-Wook is the filmmaker behind the ‘Vengeance’ trilogy – these pictures include ‘Sympathy for Mr.Vengeance’, ‘Oldboy’, and ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’. ‘Oldboy’ was the most popular of the three and instantly spawned a vogue for all things Korean amongst stateside cinephiles. I happened to see ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Stoker’ on the same day and so I know that I’m already going to offend some moviegoers with this remark, but my honest reaction is this – I’d rank ‘Stoker’ higher than ‘Oldboy’ (which is currently sitting at #85 on the IMDB Top 250 List).
Why beat around the bush? I think this is one of the most chilling and disturbingly effective movies I’ve seen in a really long time. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a sullen high school student whose father dies mysteriously on her 18th birthday. On the day of his funeral, India discovers that she has an uncle she never knew she had – the stylishly-dressed Charlie (Matthew Goode). He has an uncomfortably creepy flirtation with India’s mother (Nicole Kidman) and people start disappearing. But ostentatiously.
As he did in ‘Oldboy’, Park Chan-Wook’s technical skills and showmanship are on full display here with his use of bold colour and aberrant compositions. We first see India on the side of the road and Mr.Chan-Wook shoots this scene from a low angle; her dress flows in the wind and there’s a freeze frame during a moment I shouldn’t describe (except for the fact that it filled me with giddily perverse anticipation for what was to come). But the imagery within the opening shot lets us know that this story is going to end in an awful, bloody mess. Take for instance another scene during a long, tense dinner; the camera roams in a specific manner – only the person with something to say can be seen within the frame. If not for the plate of food in front of their clenched forks and knives, this dinner table could easily be mistaken for a poker table – who will be the first to reveal their tell? Or a scene in which a hairbrush runs through the Nicole Kidman character’s hair which then transitions into a blusterous field of grass. Or the visceral use of sound during the sharpening of a bloody pencil.
One shot shows India lying on her bed, seemingly circumscribed by boxes of identical shoes (with each box containing a different shoe size). The grand piano is positioned in the front room – and all three central characters have their moment to play; such moments emphasize sexual dread and yearning. There are also the echoes of footsteps on hardwood floor, and the foreboding creeks along the basement stairs under the swinging lampshade. This is a meticulously designed picture with every detail in the frame being fully realized. In this regard, Mr.Chan-Wook strikes a rare and delicate balance – but making his visual sensibilities appear outlandish yet restrained; gorgeous yet minimalistic.
In terms of the performances, the standout here is Matthew Goode – not to be confused with the rock singer, Matt Good. His character shifts from charming to creepy effortlessly. From the moment he appeared on screen, I knew there was something “off” about him and I couldn’t wait to find out what his deal was. Nicole Kidman has played this sort of damaged character with a bemused sense of self-preservation in ‘The Others’ and ‘Rabbit Hole’ and she is hauntingly good here too. And, she gets one showy scene towards the end when she lets her daughter India have it with a monologue about the impetus of parenthood. And I should credit Mia Wasikowska for picking mostly challenging roles – ‘The Kids Are All Right’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Albert Nobbs’. Her character’s arc of maturity, as uncomfortable as it will make some viewers, is so clearly defined by her performance. I have an enormous amount of admiration for her as an actress and can’t wait to see what she does next.
A word of caution – ‘Stoker’ won’t be for everyone. Certain scenes will have viewers walking, if not running out the exit door; such as a shower scene which shows a young girl masturbating (the scene is intercut with a grisly murder sequence). Some viewers are going to see this, like ‘Oldboy’, as a celebration of brutality and violence. I didn’t see it that way – I saw it as an intensely eerie examination of the darker side of human nature. The idea that some people could kill without any hesitation or remorse (and that such people may have been capable of it at an early age) is an unsettling thought, but Mr.Chan-Wook makes his audience members feel uncomfortable from the get-go. I suspect those who are able to stomach the unsavory material will be in for an aggressively creepy ride.
There appears to be a wave of foreign filmmakers making their excursion into Hollywood; in the last few months, there has been Park Chan-Wook with ‘Stoker’, Jee Woon-Kim’s ‘The Last Stand’, and Juan Antonio Bayona’s ‘The Impossible’ to name a few. Of the pictures I’ve seen, I’m impressed by the fact that these filmmakers don’t sacrifice their artistic sensibilities with the shift to American moviemaking. They remain firmly grounded in what they believe cinema should represent regardless of where the film is actually produced. But this begs the question – are North American audiences ready for these kinds of artful thrillers? The box office numbers suggest otherwise; but, of course, this could be due to the marketing of these pictures (after all, they contain the star-power necessary to draw in a large crowd, but they failed to do so). In any case, my hat is off to the filmmaker who sets out to make a “great movie” as opposed to the “great movie at the box office for the weekend”.
‘Stoker’ is beautifully photographed and tension-filled; outbursts of violence are unexpected and so their impact lingers. It’s very much in the spirit of movies such as ‘Badlands’ or ‘Natural Born Killers’ making us believe that these brutal murders aren’t the result of monsters or members of the mob, but by damaged souls who are absent of a conscience. ‘Stoker’ examines the artfulness of violence whilst simultaneously ensuring that its human element remains intact. I can already sense that this is going to be a very divisive film with just as many audience members pointing their thumb way down as those pointing it way up. I fall into the latter category, and to me, this was significantly more than a 2-hour perfume ad. ‘Stoker’ is such an extraordinarily composed piece – one that won’t escape my memory any time soon. QED.