One of my favorite Brian De Palma quotes is ‘Coverage is a dirty word,’ and I suspect Park Chan-wook would agree with him. Always a master of evocative, precise shots, Chan-wook brings it to a new, elegant level in the wonderful, menacing and sexy Stoker. Any fears that Park would lose his voice during his trip to America, as has happened to so many other Asian filmmakers, can be set aside. This is his best film since 2005's Sympathy For Lady Vengeance.
It’s possibly his most beautiful movie yet. A sensual, goth gothic, Stoker is a mannered film with raging passion and insanity just under the surface, perfectly reflecting the lives of the characters within. Mia Wasikowska is India, a rich girl with more than a little Wednesday Addams in her, whose father dies on her 18th birthday. At the funeral her previously unknown uncle, Charlie (a smooth Matthew Goode), shows up, and moves in with the family. India’s grieving mother, played with ice queen nobility by Nicole Kidman, falls for the new man in her life, but it seems Charlie is truly interested in India. And that’s not even his worst secret.
To say that Mia Wasikowska leaves behind her girlish ways in Stoker is an understatement. While she begins the film as an innocent, moving gradually into a Lolita-like figure, she ends up becoming a fully sexualized woman in a profoundly disturbing and profoundly erotic shower sequence. It’s an incredible scene not just because of the sensuality but because of the way Park uses it to turn all of our expectations upside down, to disorient us in everything we thought we knew about this world he had created.
I can’t spoil what that is; the journey of discovery during the course of Stoker is extraordinary. It’s a film whose opening titles take on stunning new meaning in the end, whose imagery reveals its meanings only after the totality of the film has unspooled. The film is deliberately paced along that journey, but Park makes that pace flow by gracefully keeping us entranced with his gorgeous framing (cinematography by regular collaborator Chung-hoon Chung) and inventive, surprising transitions.
More than that, though, is the electricity of the acting. Often subdued, sometimes almost distractingly mannered, the three leads do a psycho-sexual dance that is nothing less than riveting. In the beginning the style of performance can be disorienting - Park isn’t going for exact realism here - but once you settle into the rhythms they enfold you completely.
Wasikowska is stunning, slightly underplaying but maintaining an immediate emotional certainty. We move through the story with her, and it’s a testament to Wasikowska as movie star and actress that even if we’re a touch ahead of her on certain discoveries we still want to be there when she finds out for herself.
Kidman is fascinating to watch. It’s impossible to look at her and not be aware of the extensive work she continues to do on her face - her facial movements are, at this point, extraordinarily limited. But she has been taking roles where that works, and this is one of those. Her character Evelyn Stoker is the sort of vain rich woman who would be getting tons of work done, and the limitations of her expressions speak to Evelyn’s repressed, selfish emotions. Beyond that, though, there’s a wounded aspect, a feeling of a woman who was caged through her marriage, finally set free, that Kidman essays perfectly.
Wasikowska is the star and the center of Stoker, but Matthew Goode is her binary companion in performance. He’s extraordinary, playing a man who is at first charming and suave but slowly reveals himself to be something much, much more sinister. And yet, even as his most sinister aspects are revealed, he remains charming and attractive. Goode has cornered the market on handsome, magnetic, creepy guys.
Each of these actors does incredible things, but it’s the overarching strength of the direction that elevates Stoker. The script, by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, is ever-so-slightly obtuse and subtly perverted, and in other hands it could have been schlock. There’s more than a little schlock in here, but it’s presented so artfully you forget it, even as blood spatters and belts tighten around necks. Stoker is definitely in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, directors who also approached the seediest of subjects with the greatest of grace.
There was a time when I worried about Park Chan-wook, when I thought Oldboy had been his peak and everything else would be a slow slide in quality. Coming to America made me nervous, as that’s been a bad, compromise-filled choice for too many foreign language filmmakers in the past. But Stoker is pure Park Chan-wook, and a movie that feels elegantly transgressive and viscerally exciting. It’s an incredible film, from an incredible filmmaker.
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Park Chan-wook is clearly in a very dark place. His head is bowed, his mood blue. What terrible circumstances could be troubling the South Korean director who masterminded the queasy excesses of Oldboy and the rest of his Vengeance trilogy? Recent incarceration by an unknown malefactor? Is he being hounded by a secret black-market organ-smuggling operation?
In fact, his cat has died, and he's still struggling to cope. "I'd had him for more than 10 years."
Mooka, Park's Russian Blue puss, was just one of the victims of a kitty reaper that stalked the set of his new film, Stoker. Composer Clint Mansell's mog died at the same time. "The only consolation is that it didn't happen during shooting, but during postproduction," says Park. The sumptuous Stoker is his first English-language production, but it's unmistakably his work: adorned everywhere with picturebook flourishes – harvestmen creeping over slim ankles, brushed hair dissolving into cornfields, blood-spattered foliage.
And a domestic void is at its heart, too: Mia Wasikowska stars as India Stoker, an 18-year-old girl mourning the death of her father in a car accident, unlike her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who seems liberated – especially when her husband's mysterious brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) appears at the funeral. No one with that orange a tan can be trustworthy, and India, with a certain icky fascination, is on the interloper's case. The name Uncle Charlie should ring a bell – another one, played by Joseph Cotton, turned up to upend a household in Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt.
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.
"There's this element I brought into the film, this talk of wine," says Park of a loaded dinner-table scene, "There's a line where Evie appreciates how mature the wine is, and Charlie says: well, you can't compare it to a younger wine, which is too tannic. But we realise later on that he didn't pick the wine for Evie, but for India. When he pushes the wine to India and says: '1994: the year you were born.' And that was the year my daughter was born, so it was a nod to her."
Park made his 2006 romantic-comedy I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK because he wanted his daughter, Seo-woo, to be able to see one of his films – normally filled with vendettas, incest, extreme amateur dentistry and other frivolities. Stoker, down to its bat-winged title, is a step back towards his usual tormented idiom, so what message can its torrid coming-of-age story hold for his kid? Park, sat on the edge of the circle of lamplight, picking over a chocolate muffin, manicured nails tapering to sharp ovals, lets out a little chuckle. "I'm not the kind of director who aims to send a message out. But if you had to twist my arm, it would be: in knowing yourself, you can liberate yourself."
He leads by example. He agrees that he picked a script with identifiable Park traits as a way of cementing his "brand" as he makes a break, in his 50th year, for an international audience. There is something very self-aware and controlled about him in person: in a blue blazer, grey trousers, tortoiseshell glasses, cradling a leather-strapped Leica camera, he couldn't be trying any harder to channel the "classy cult-film dude" look. A former philosophy student heavily involved in the film clubs that sprang up, at the same time as the pro-democracy movements, at South Korean universities in the 80s, Park became a film critic while he was trying to ignite his directorial career. When no one reviewed his debut film, The Moon Is the Sun's Dream, he wrote a notice himself for the university paper under a pseudonym.
He has scary cinephile credentials, according to Hamish McAlpine, the former head of Tartan Films who unearthed Park for western audiences: "He's one of the brightest I've ever met. He's very versed in cinema – of the west, too. He once asked me if I had read a play by JM Barrie, Mary Rose; and I said no, my knowledge of him stopped at Lost Boys. Apparently, Barrie's estate refused Hitchcock the rights to film it. Park asked me if I could get him a copy [of the play]: probably 99.9% of western film scholars don't know about it."
With this depth of knowledge at his fingertips, Park became one of the directors at the forefront of the explosion in Korean cinema in the early noughties, notably with his massive local hit Joint Security Area, which agonised (like so many of the country's films) over the north-south rift. This year, the now-mature Korean industry reaches another waypoint, with three of its top directors making their English-language debuts. As well as Park, there's Kim Jee-woon, who brought Arnold Schwarzenegger and the zeitgeist back on speaking terms with the recent The Last Stand, and Bong Joon-ho, whose comic-book adaptation Snowpiercer, with its multinational cast, is one of the most awaited sci-fi projects of the year.
Park is acting as producer on Snowpiercer – not just for professional reasons, but as part of an obligation to Bong, who is seven years younger, integral to Korean society. "I'm not sure if you understand the importance of the junior-senior relationship in eastern culture," says Bong. "It's not exactly a mentor relationship. We've been friends and acquaintances for many years. He looked for me to finish the film in the right way. He'd often suggest ideas that needed quite a lot of money, not like a normal producer. He is a director as well, so he cannot suppress himself."
It's striking, though, that Park, Bong and Kim have gone down such different routes for their global breakouts, with self-avowed "control freak" Bong steering clear of Hollywood, and Kim (for Lionsgate) and Park (for Fox Searchlight) trying to make an accommodation with the studios. All three had to adjust to US-style sets, very different to the Asian system that places all authority in the director. But where Bong kept creative control, and Kim was essentially a hired gun on a star vehicle, only Park had to fight to preserve a personal vision with a studio – which eventually resulted in a 20-minute cut to Stoker to bring it in at a tidy 1hr 38min. "It's just such a different animal from what I've experienced in Korea," he says, "but it's just like how you can't really complain about the weather in the States when you're going over to shoot a film. The Searchlight people had good taste, though. There were some differences of opinion, but at least they didn't make any nonsensical remarks."
Perhaps calmness – not auteur strops – is the key to winning against the corporations. Park has plenty of it, but given the rancorous content of his work, you wonder what lies beneath the unrufflable exterior; McAlpine reckons he only ever opens up "after a few sakés". This composed quality is apparently something the director has always had. His childhood priest (he went to church every Sunday with his mother) told a teenaged Park that he make a good clergyman. "I'm guessing it was because of my manner," says Park, "Or maybe he thought I didn't like women; if he did, he was wrong – I like them so very much. But I couldn't bear the thought of going to a seminary, so that's when I stopped going to church. I realised: I go there as a habit, not because of any real belief."
And so we got Park for the devil's party. The stylised, deranged waltz through his Vengeance trilogy won him many western admirers, and the elegant – if increasingly overheated – Stoker puts him in good running for a lengthy international career (only Ang Lee and John Woo, among Asian directors, have managed it). Spike Lee's Oldboy remake, due later this year, should help. If it doesn't work out, then he has the family motto to fall back on – "Never mind!" – which Park has tried to impart to his daughter. He thought it up as his kiss-off to the obsessive, high-achieving rhetoric favoured by the old military regime: "It's a little more than 'never mind'. It's: if you're trying to do something, if it doesn't happen, don't fuss over it. You need to understand the Korean mindset to fully appreciate it."
Isn't Korea's most high-achieving modern director a bad example on this score? "Really? I don't think I've ever tried to make something happen that I've absolutely had to force. You know how they say: if you can't avoid it, enjoy it. For me, it's the other way around: if I can't enjoy it, I avoid it."