Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Stoker – Park Chan-wook

Stoker (Park Chan-wook – USA/UK) 99 minutes

Park Chan-wook’s Korean films, I have to admit, leave me quite unmoved. They’re not particularly bad but there is a wearying samey-ness about them and they demand a suspension of disbelief so constant your disbelief is in danger of getting serious cramp. It doesn’t help either that, for the general public in the West, Park has eclipsed all of Korean cinema – I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard someone ask, upon hearing of a Korean film, ‘is that by the guy who did Old Boy?’

But, just as one might socialise more with a casual acquaintance from back home were one to meet them while travelling, I was interested in seeing how Park fared in an American setting. Stoker is produced by Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony – an unusual departure in itself for them – and is based on an original script by actor Wentworth Miller (of Prison Break fame), one that looks like it was specifically written with Park in mind. The samey-ness, even in a new locale, continues, but that is not necessarily a bad thing for Stoker, which is a chillingly effective thriller.

The film opens with a monologue delivered by wealthy teenager India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), who has pulled her car up by the side of the road, and steps out, in long-shot, announcing, in breathless voiceover, ‘I'm not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father's belt tied around my mother's blouse, and shoes which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its colour, we are not responsible for what we have come to be’. Latecomers to the screening might be forgiven for thinking they are watching one of those vacuous ads for fashion houses that are regularly shown before the main feature. It is a canny device though, which foreshadows the way the film sculpts emptiness into something icy and freakishly substantial.

We then move on (or back?) to the funeral of India’s father, who has been killed in a tragic car accident. India, who went on hunting trips with her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney), is disturbed by the arrival of her paternal uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who has seemingly been travelling the world learning how to be refined. He also has designs on India’s mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who has little compunction in shedding her widow’s weeds to consent. So far, so Hamlet then, and it is little surprise that Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy and the films of Park Chan-wook, already not a million miles apart, should become joined at the hip in Park’s first Western film.

Stoker is not a conventional thriller or horror film as Miller and Park divulge vital plot information far too early for the intrigue to hold up. At first this is an annoyance but it soon becomes clear that the plot is being cast off, almost as a McGuffin, and character is of far greater concern. And India Stoker is a fantastic heroine, one rarely seen in mainstream cinema – a troubled, ingeniously resourceful, viciously moral teenager, and one whose evolution will trouble audiences as much as it thrills them. Mia Wasikowska, like Rooney Mara, may be at risk of being typecast as a troubled young waif but she captures the cold justice of India superbly here. The shadow of Hitchcock (not to mention the Irish writer alluded to in the titular heroine's name) also looms over the film – the casting itself has an air of Hitchcockian caprice about it: Goode, a vacant, mannequin-like presence at the best of times, is just right for the wraithishly handsome Uncle Charlie. The repeated scenes where he pulls his belt (stolen from his brother, the same one referenced in the opening scene) out of its loops are diabolically sadistic but inflected with all the gustatory visual bravura of luxury advertising. Kidman, a woman who has, over two decades, gradually emptied herself of acting prowess, is also well cast as the unthinking pawn who becomes the target of her daughter’s righteous ire.

As I said before, Stoker shows us nothing new in the Park Chan-wook canon, but expatriated to the United States, it acquires an unexpected freshness. You have to hand it to the Scotts, for having the balls to confer a mainstream production on Park (and Miller); there will be many audiences exposed to such a deft psychological portrait as this for the first time. If Park is given another couple of films in the US, we may even hear an end to the question ‘is that the guy who did Old Boy?’