Now, that was a film I was looking forward to seeing. Park Chan-Wook’s work was always quite a challenge for me and the minute I learned he was going to direct his American debut, I knew straight away it was going to be something to remember. Anyone familiar with Chan-Wook’s “Oldboy” and “Sympathy for…” films would know exactly what I mean here. I watched them all back in the days of my infatuation with far-east cinema. Yep, I watched them, I loved them and I had a hard time convincing myself to watch them again. That’s the type of cinema you’re in for when you’re about to see something with Park Chan-Wook’s stamp of approval on it.
Right, so let’s get to the crux of it – the story. As you probably know, it is the most important feature in any Chan-Wook’s film. Right after it goes the imagery, but I shall get to that later on. On the subject of the storytelling – it is imperative for his films to kick you in the groin and laugh at you while you’re on the ground squirming in pain and discomfort. If you saw “Oldboy”, then you know that feeling more than you’d like to. “Stoker”, however, doesn’t even come close to that level, but it does provide a solid two hours of disturbing and uncomfortable experience. Maybe it’s the fact it was penned for your average westerner and in Korea things are more likely to be taken to extremes… I don’t know.
Interestingly, the script was written by someone I would never expect to come up with something quite like that – none other than Wentworth Miller. If you don’t recall the name, perhaps “Prison Break” would ring any bells. That’s right; the actor (by the way, he has devoted most of his career to stage acting) who played Michael Scofield proudly stands behind the “Stoker’s” story line.
So, what is it all about? “Stoker” tells us a story of a young adolescent girl – India (Mia Wasikowska), whose life is terribly disturbed by her father’s death – right on her 18th birthday. She is left completely broken by the fact that her dad has died in a car accident. She hates her mother (Nicole Kidman) and she is a rather awkward teenager in her own right – so she simply ends up alone in her world, devoid of her father, with whom she had a very special relationship. India’s life gets even more complicated by a sudden reappearance of her father’s long lost brother – Charlie (Matthew Goode), who shows up unexpectedly at the funeral and from that point onward, he forces his way into India’s and her mother’s lives. Nobody knows anything about Charlie’s past or his intentions and it quickly becomes apparent that his plans are of the evil kind.
“Stoker” isn’t exactly your regular family drama, nor it is a regular crime story. It is, in short, a very weird – and I’d say kinky – experience. It required a bit of post-screening thinking for me to get certain things right in my head. For instance, it was almost impossible to immediately grasp how complicated India’s situation was. It wasn’t clearly laid out in the open. I think that India’s grief had something to do with the fact that her father’s death left her in some sort of a limbo – in the nothingness that lies between adolescence and adulthood. It was her father who every year would give her a pair of shoes for her birthday. Always the same childish kind, but a tad bigger and because he died, he never got the chance to let his daughter become a woman.
Instead, life sends India her mysterious uncle, whom she never knew. And it is him who somehow takes over the reins dropped by India’s father and who starts wearing his shoes around the house. This is where “Stoker” becomes really unpleasant, because we get to see how Charlie attempts to establish an intimate connection both with India and her mother. This bond becomes the catalyst for India to break out of her shell and become a full-grown woman. But who she is, or who she’d become is a whole different story. It will soon turn out that Charlie’s predatory influence will have a profound impact on India’s life.
I have to say that “Stoker” leaves your sense of humanity a bit disturbed when the screening is over. My mind was totally occupied with turmoil of mixed emotions, but not towards the movie itself. I think that “Stoker” pricked my moral code in some way and its unsettling imagery somehow affected my psyche… which is good, because that’s what you’d expect from Park Chan-Wook. Every character and every scene in “Stoker” are filthy in some unspoken way. Therefore, all throughout the film I had this weird feeling in the back of my head, as if I was doing something wrong and forbidden. All that gets further exacerbated with every scene, from India’s awkward way of being, through Charlie’s lurking in the shadows like Norman Bates and watching India in his voracious way, India’s sexual initiations and her sudden horrifying emergence… By the end of the film, “Stoker” is a tsunami of agitating images which drift further and further away from what we consider normal or acceptable.
What also helps the movie stick with you after you’ve left the cinema is how it was shot and imaged. At some point I believe that dialogue in this film becomes secondary and you could probably continue watching while not paying attention to what the characters say at all. Every shot in “Stoker” looks meticulously planned and perfectly executed. All the angles are right and in retrospect I would say that there was no scene in this film that didn’t serve a purpose there. It was almost as if the director instinctively knew how to merge these scenes together, in order to amplify the symphony of unpleasant dread that “Stoker” definitely is. I dare say it is pure artistry, because it’s near impossible to design something like that in a mathematical and logical way without making the film look artificial.
All things considered, I think “Stoker” was a phenomenal piece that should surely put Park Chan-Wook in the Hollywood landscape. At the same time, the film retains Chan-Wook’s very distinctive touch, yet doped with a fair amount of Hitchcock’s influence. I mean, the way characters are written (with Charlie looking to me as if he escaped from “Psycho”) and the way the mystery hangs in there like a sword ready to fall on our heads at any moment – they all scream Hitchcock to me. Nonetheless, Park Chan Wook’s brush ascertains once and for all that “Stoker” is, after all, his own creation and should be remembered as such – it was unforgettable.