Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For August, we honor the absurd humor and abject violence of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Foreign directors piggybacking off their international acclaim to film an English-language film outside their home nation can be a fraught endeavor. When it works (Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, Ang Lee), they translate their own idiosyncrasies onto the glossy lens of Hollywood. But sometimes, the filmmaker ends up out of their element, resulting in a watered-down distillation of their style that loses something in the performances and soul of the piece. (Take Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, or Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection, for instance.)
So when it came to pass that Park Chan-wook, fresh off the overseas success of Oldboy, was set to come across the Atlantic to film his American debut, Stoker, a mixture of excitement and trepidation filled the air. And while the results may not be as thematically or narratively fulfilling as his native works, it’s still a glorious exercise in style and would set him up for more Gothic victories later in his career.
Most of Park’s movies are about vengeance in some way, and this didn’t change even when he shifted his setting to America. In Stoker, we follow the curiously mercurial India (Mia Wasikowska, the Christina Ricci of the 2010s), a young woman whose father (Dermot Mulroney) died in a mysterious car accident. Her mother, Evelyn (a ravishingly brittle Nicole Kidman) shudders under the weight of such incredible strain. But luckily, India’s long-lost Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) arrives to pick up the pieces. He quickly becomes a father figure to India and a not-so-secret lover to Evelyn, and his arrival awakens a killer instinct in India that may reflect Charlie’s own.
Fans of Hitchcock will recognize the heavy inspiration of Shadow of a Doubt on actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller‘s script, right down to the appearance of a murderous Uncle Charlie coming to tutor and terrify a young girl. While the film’s title implies a vampiric presence that’s not really there, there’s something of the neo-Gothic in the predatory dynamic of the three leads.
It’s in atmosphere and character more than dialogue that Miller’s script sings. The supporting characters suffer most of all, from Jacki Weaver as Charlie’s aunt/canary in the coalmine to Lucas Till and Alden Ehrenreich as India’s bully and age-appropriate love interest, respectively. Miller sets up sizzling sequences like India and Uncle Charlie’s sexually-charged piano duet (composed by Philip Glass to accompany Clint Mansell‘s slyly lush score) only to craft scenes with high school bullies with lines like, “Hey Stoker! Or is it more like Stroker? Because I hear that’s what your mom is doing… to your uncle!”
Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. Only once you realize this do you become free, and to become adult is to become free.India Stoker
Still, it’s the style that rules in a picture like this. Stoker is nothing else if not a sumptuous collection of future desktop wallpapers. It’s the kind of picture that relishes in its Northeastern WASP lushness, with the Stokers’ beautiful townhouse filled with wooden floors, winding staircases, and secrets. It’s a fertile playground for Park to play in, and Stoker delights in its many baroque touches. Chung-hoon Chung‘s cinematography is clearly the star here, crafting more than a few arresting images in the contrast between nature and violence. Blood splatters across hydrangeas, a daddy-long-legs crawls between India’s legs, trains barrel through wooded areas as murders reach their crescendo. More than anything, Stoker is a tone poem about the eroticism of violence, and Park’s camera relishes in these images.
This eroticism ties into Stoker‘s nature as a blood-soaked coming of age story. After all, India’s sexual and homicidal awakening are inextricably intertwined with the other. In this respect, Park’s inevitable distance from the material by both language and culture is to the film’s advantage. After all, he is at just as much of a remove from this world as India. It’s something he admitted to during press interviews: “The experience was] a very awkward one, having to work with a new system and language.”
Even so, by leaning into what he does best, the elements that transcend language and culture — the images — he manages to morph Miller’s script into a scintillating exercise in Gothic style. The actors, to their credit, acquit themselves nicely; Wasikowska is beautifully on-brand as India in all her quiet danger. Kidman makes the most of her fearful, disinterested mother. (“Personally, I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart,” she spits at India in a show-stopping single-take monologue late in the film.)
But curiously, it’s Goode who delivers the most effective performance here. He imbues Uncle Charlie with that kind of effortless sex appeal he knows he can weaponize to deadly effect. He purrs at India and Evelyn with devastating confidence, seducing the audience as much as he does the Stoker women. The camera loves him, with his wry grin, aviator shades, and shockingly delicate masculinity. His battle of wills with India buoys Stoker‘s otherwise single-minded focus on images. And as the film builds to its muted, surprising climax, Charlie’s hubris builds to a fever pitch.
Stoker was released to relative critical acclaim (though less than his Korean films), but only barely made its budget back at the box office. It took Park about five years to return to English-language filmmaking with 2018’s BBC miniseries The Little Drummer Girl, which was received far more respectably. Still, in Stoker, we saw glimmers of Park’s promise as a filmmaker who can ply richly-textured grotesqueries outside of his home country. Plus, in his next film The Handmaiden, he would continue Stoker‘s exploration of the liberation of sexuality and violence.