In a tastefully stylish opening credits scene, we are introduced to India Stoker, wearing her father’s belt and her mother’s blouse, standing on the edge of a field. The frame freezes every few seconds, emphasizing on India’s words. After the credits we come to understand that India has just lost his father in an accident and friends and family come to attend his wake. One of the family members who have come is her uncle Charlie, whose existence she wasn’t even aware of. She asks why nobody has ever told her that she had an uncle, and she’s told that it’s because her uncle Charlie has always been abroad, globe-trotting.
Uncle Charlie decides to stay in the Stoker manor, with India and her mother Evelyn. Both mother and daughter seem to not have any social life, preferring to spend their time in the impeccable, variedly-colored house, India reading books, her mother chugging wine. While Evelyn wastes no time in cuddling up to her brother-in-law, India never wants to be in the same room as Charlie—at least she tries to make it look that way. But Charlie is always aware of India’s presence and doesn’t quit on getting closer to her. He pops up outside her school, drives alongside her school bus. In the end, no matter how hard India tries, her uncle Charlie understands her a lot more than she can imagine.
Park Chan Wook is already a household name in his native country and also in the international film circuit, with his 2003 feature Oldboy garnering accolades from all over the world. Oldboy is, in fact, getting a Hollywood remake (uh-oh), which will be released later this year. Even though Stoker is his first English-language film, Park’s style is definitely not lost in translation. The script is written by Wentworth Miller, best known for his role in the TV series Prison Break, and I don’t know if the finished product is what Miller had in mind when he penned his script, but Stoker sure has Park’s traits all over it. It deals with themes familiar to those who enjoy Park’s films—dark histories, families, sex and blood—the latter is of course very tame compared to his Korean works.
Park almost always works with cinematographer Jeong Jeong Hoon. Being Park’s first time working outside Korea, aside from being a familiar presence in an unfamiliar field, Jeong is also important because his visuals play a vital role in the film. Park has always been commended for his visual style but Stoker, however different it is from his other films, can be his most stylish, visually impressive work so far. From the eccentric, preppy costumes worn by Mia Wasikowska to a red-and-white-striped ice cream pint, Park succeeded in creating a fantasy Gothic-style world he could stage his characters in. Even from the opening credits you could already guess that this film is going to rely a lot on visuals—and that’s exactly the reason why Park chose Miller’s script. The film doesn’t play much on dialogues, allowing Park to bring a lot of visual and sound elements into it—another heavy player in the film. Sound design. When we watch a film, most of the time the sound eludes our attention, overpowered by other more obvious elements, but this time it stands out. A crescendo of metronome ticking, unforgivably filling up the screen at one scene, or an exaggerated sound of a bloodied tip of a pencil being sharpened, spurting as the wet blood get pressed under the thin cutter. A lot of people dislike the film because of these elements, saying that the film is over stylized. The film sure is heavily stylized, but seeing that as a weak point? I say on the contrary, that’s what makes the film strong.
It’s great that Park had the three great actors to grace his first foreign work. Nicole Kidman plays Evie, a twisted version of a Stepford wife, feeling somewhat liberated from her husband’s death yet trapped in her distant, awkward relationship with her only daughter. Evie never appears in less-than-perfect grooming, never a strand of hair out of place. Kidman’s flawless profile accentuated in close-ups, I got reminded of how stunning the woman is. Matthew Goode suits Charlie perfectly, a good looking yet creepy guy (with a neck that doesn’t seem to end), seemingly all calm and seductive on the outside but with evils lurking inside. And of course, Mia Wasikowska. After the forgettable Alice in Wonderland, Wasikowska’s choices have been getting better and better every year. She proved that she could lead with Jane Eyre, and although I don’t think she has stretched herself enough so far, I sure will continue to pay attention to her career. The dark and gloomy India is a mystery even to herself, and Stoker is after all a story about an 18 year-old discovering and coming to terms with herself, and Wasikowska is an excellent choice. The characters have somewhat a puppet-y quality about them, which is another point people attack the film with. Yes the characters can feel like distant, soulless dolls but again, is that a weak point? I don’t think so. On the contrary, it puts another layer in the film, another distinction.
Working on an foreign soil couldn’t have been easy for Park. He didn’t even speak a word of English on the set, relying on a translator to work with all the cast and crew. He was also taken aback by how the studio would share their opinions and ask Park to explain about all his thoughts and choices. The studio also made a 20-minute cut to the film. But in the end Park doesn’t see it as anything negative or positive, “it’s just like a Korean coming onto American soil and complaining that it is raining. Why is the weather like this here, why is it raining? It is something that one cannot do anything about,” he said. However, amidst the shocks and hardships, Park got to cast two leading ladies he had always wanted to work with, and also got Philip Glass, a composer he had admired for a long time, to write a piano piece for a piano duet scene—one of my favorite scenes in the film, intriguingly erotic.
There are currently three Korean directors making their English language debuts. Park, with Stoker, Kim Ji Woon (The Good, the Bad and the Weird, I Saw the Devil) with The Last Stand, and lastly Bong Joon Ho (The Host, Mother), with Snowpiercer. Kim seems like, sadly, nothing more than a hired employee, working for a big studio. While Bong keeps his control and stays out of Hollywood, his Snowpiercer is backed by three non-Hollywood production companies—one from Czech Republic (where production took place), two from his native country, including Park’s very own. Park seems to be in the middle, accommodated by a big studio yet still fighting for his control. So many foreign filmmakers (and actors) get blinded by the big US bucks and leave their identity behind, surrendering their own style for money and fame in return, but it doesn’t seem like Park is going to go down that path. And it’s a wonderful thing.