by Bryan Lynch
Allow me, if you will, to cast my mind all the way back to the primitive days of 2004. In Cork at that time, one cinema reigned supreme; a single screen, coffee scented house of magic which brought to my part of the world cinematic wonders from beyond the farthest seas. It was called the Kino, and there on a bright spring day I saw something which all these years later could still stake a credible claim to being my favourite film of all time. I knew nothing about it other than it had won the Jury Grand Prix at Cannes, was from Korea and was by all accounts superb. The film was Oldboy.
Since its release, it has been hailed as one of the finest films of its decade and its director, Park Chan-wook, became regarded as one of the most exciting voices in 21st century cinema. But back then, when I stepped out from the Kino, a quest had just begun; I had to see more of the man’s work. DVD purchases and internet research followed. I made sure to follow his career and by doing so I was myself swept along by the Hallyu; the Korean wave which since the late 90s has given us a generation of filmmakers who have consistently astonished the world, subverting and transcending genres even as they re-invent and re-interpret them. The Republic of Korea is now one of the countries I hold in the highest regard cinematically and the nation’s rise from being the southern half of a tragically divided peninsula to a cultural powerhouse has truly been meteoric.
It can be safe to say then that I was always going to see Stoker in the cinema, but I must admit that it was with no small amount of trepidation that I did so. Perhaps I give them too little credit, but I have always felt that directors are a bit like wildlife: they flourish best in their natural environment. Earlier in the year I saw the first American film by another Korean maestro, Kim Ji-woon, the phenomenally bland The Last Stand, which had reinforced this belief (other examples of fish who found themselves out of water include Takeshi Kitano, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and John Woo). All too often strangers in Hollywood have had their hands tied by the producer-led nature of the American industry which leads to a dampening or outright constraint of their creative freedom. An additional worry came in the fact that Stoker’s script was written by someone other than Park himself, a true auteur who had always had a hand in his film’s screenplays.
I am glad to report then that despite the fact that he did not write the screenplay and he was working in a very different environment, Stoker is very much a Park Chan-wook film. Part of the reason for this is the beautiful cinematography by DP Chung Chung-hoon who has worked with Park since Oldboy and who once again succeeds in bringing Park’s distinctive visual style to the screen. This is a beautiful world of muted colours and gentle contrasts which suits the subtle yet growing unease of the film’s protagonist, while Park’s usual fragmented editing style nods to the psychosis of its characters in general.
Park has always been a director whose films are very visually driven and Stoker is no exception. Scenes, sequences and shots flow and drift into each other in often very inventive ways. These transitions help control the film’s pacing, which as usual for Park is spot on and perfectly fitted to the film’s narrative of grief and the arrival of adulthood. While the plot of a daughter mourning her recently deceased father and the intrusion of his long lost brother into the family is by no means ground-breaking, the subdued performances of Mia Wasikowska (India) and Matthew Goode (Charlie) are certainly noteworthy and the pair have a strange, unnerving chemistry. This smouldering tension surfaces at times, most notably in a nerve-shredding impromptu piano duet.
While the plot is perfectly functional and the dialogue is certainly well crafted by screenwriter Wentworth Miller, Stoker is first and foremost a film of themes and imagery. It is laden with psychosexual symbolism, perhaps more so than any off Park’s previous work and while some of the metaphors may be accused of slight heavy-handedness, the beauty of the film’s cinematography and editing hold everything together competently. The protagonist’s Electra complex is explored well in a number of icy exchanges between Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman’s far from grief-stricken widow (Evelyn) but the theme of loss, or rather the corruption, of innocence eventually becomes the film’s most compelling factor.
This is certainly a theme Park has experience in exploring. Many of his characters and almost all of his protagonists experience a sort of moral decline. Sometimes this is forced on them by circumstance as in Joint Security Area or embraced as a form of mental strengthening as in his Vengeance Trilogy, but the way the issue is addressed in Stoker is perhaps closest to the way it was examined in Park’s vampire film Thirst. Both films revolve around the gradual corruption of a female character by an older man, but while in Thirst Song Kang-ho’s Catholic priest is the most unwilling and accidental of corruptors, Mathew Goode’s subtle yet forceful direction of India along the path of darkness is driven by an obsession worthy of one of Hitchcock’s more unhinged villains.
Time for judgement then; is Stoker one of Park Chan-wook’s best pieces of work? No, it doesn’t reach the heights of any of his Korean films, let alone Oldboy, but I’m not letting it pass without a very strong recommendation. It is a beautifully shot, superbly edited film which is far more cerebral than most of the multiplex fare we get these days. Part of the problem in making a film as great as Oldboy relatively early in your career is that everything you do afterwards is immediately judged by a previously set yardstick and in the case of Stoker, that’s just too harsh; it is still a fine piece of cinema.