Park Chan-wook’s STOKER (2013) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival as it marked this prolific South Korean director’s first English language film. The film’s script (written by Wentworth Miller) was included in Hollywood’s “Black List” of the 10 best-unproduced screenplays in 2010. Miller wrote it under the pseudonym ‘Ted Foulke’, and it marks his debut as a screenwriter. Fox’s Searchlight Pictures, the same powerhouse distributor that produced such acclaimed films as “Slumdog Millionaire”, “Juno”, and Terrance Malick’s “The Tree of Life”, oversaw this double-debut effort. In addition, the film was handled by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions, as well as Indian Paintbrush (own by the billionaire Steven M. Rales); with such power players involved in the production of STOKER, questions have to be asked as how much creative control this award-winning South Korea director really had on the film.
The psychological thriller is no stranger to Park, or South Korean cinema for that matter. This iconic Korean filmmaker is probably most recognized for his award-winning efforts in the 2003 revenge thriller OLD BOY (currently being remade by the American director Spike Lee). His reputation for producing tightly woven and psychological intriguing films at least, to some degree, fits the premise of Miller’s psychologically tinged script. If a Korean director was to be chosen for such a sinister piece, Park’s familiarity and filmography made him an easy target for the director’s chair.
The movie follows India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), an only-child who lives on a grand estate with her mother, father, and numerous housemaids. After the mysterious and sudden death of her farther, India is suddenly introduced to the Uncle she never knew existed; who, by her mother’s invitation, immediately replaces her father as the man of the house. Her creepy Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) is intelligent, handsome, and appears as a kind of false deux en machina in this gripping and dark tale of forgotten family blood. India’s mom (Evelyn played by Nicole Kidman) is more than happy to have Charlie around, a troubling fact the drives the wedge deeper between mother and daughter. As a daddy’s girl of note, India is less than thrilled at this new arrangement and, despite their perhaps guilty efforts to include her, rejects them both outright. India keeps her distance (psychically and emotionally) from them both, but her efforts to avoid her creepy new uncle are thwarted by his apparent obsession to form a bond with her.
As a psychological thriller, “Stoker” places emphasis on visual tensions and a seething psychological conflict that flickers consistency throughout the piece. Working with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (“Old Boy“, “Thirst” and “The Unjust“), Park’s visual expressiveness can still be admired in a number of visual/thematic motifs and his claustrophobic closed-framing. The shoes India wears, for example, are continually given emphasis throughout the film as symbols of her father’s authority and love. They also represent her own coming-of-age, as they were a gift she received religiously each year from her father. However, due to her father’s timely death on her birthday, her shoes are not too small and leave her feet, and future, blistered and wanting.
STOKER makes no attempt to conceal that fact that the Stoker family is a dark and deeply troubled one. Any idealistic notions of a once happy family unit are quickly dismissed as even India’s memories of her father appear tainted and foreboding. India herself seems straight out of the Adam’s family with her anti-social tendencies and placid facial expressions, and viewers will rightfully find it hard to fully commit to identifying with her character. Evelyn is also problematic in this regard, as her pent-up anger towards her late husband, and denial over Charlie’s intentions, forces us to keep a healthy distance from her neurotic behaviors. This lack of a clear protagonist may frustrate viewers during the course of the film, but when consider in retrospect the argument can be made that the script’s surprising ends justifies these distracting means.
While the film may not be fully represented of Park’s ability or past filmography, it still carries with it that sharp edge Park knowingly packs in his director’s chair. Stoker is in intellectual descent into the malignant forces that pull a family apart from the inside out. The story itself is perhaps rather flaccid, and lacks the conciseness that made so many of Park’s previous hits memorable. Perhaps Stoker’s most fascinating dimension was its compositions and use of thematic motifs; an aspect of the film that added a slick and thought-provoking veneer, one that lingers long after the projector cools down. Hollywood’s training wheels may have reigned in Park a little too much here, but the trend of South Korea director’s making their way into English features is an exciting movement to keep an eye on.
Review by: C.J. Wheeler (firstname.lastname@example.org)