Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, the second in the director’s trio of hyper-violent revenge films, is like a punch to the gut. The scene in which Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) scrambles down a long hallway, battling twenty-five thugs armed with crowbars, bats, and other implements of pain, is a stunning exercise in cinematography and choreography – it was shot in one continuous take. As Dae-su’s enemies strike him over and over, their bodies surging over him like ants on a mound, at last flinging their weapons while they back away or writhe on the dirty floor, you understand the lengths to which he’ll go to keep fighting.
Likewise, that gentleman consumes a live squid, chewing its spongy flesh even as its tentacles grasp his hand and nose. It’s a literal representation of the way revenge consumes him even as he flails about. Park’s imagery, the grotesquerie of his films – the way you can’t help smiling even as your stomach churns – is singular and peculiar. (And something tells me Spike Lee can’t even come close to matching it, much as I’m sure he plans to in his 2013 remake.)
It took me awhile to get around to watching Stoker, Park’s latest and most American offering. Filmed in Nashville, Tennessee (one assumes because A-list star Nicole Kidman resides there), Stoker has a distinctly Western feel. Most of Park’s films rely on the cramped aesthetic many Korean thrillers avail to create tension and claustrophobia. Stoker profits from the exact opposite: agoraphobia, the feeling of isolation and solitude that pervades the aging manses of the American South. We ‘murricans like our space, and sometimes it is creepy as hell.
On the day of her eighteenth birthday, India (Mia Wasikowska) Stoker discovers her father Richard has been killed in a tragic accident, leaving her with her mother Evelyn (Kidman), a chilly woman unafflicted with maternal instincts. At the funeral, India and Evie encounter, separately and then together, the deceased patriarch’s brother Charlie (Matthew Goode). “In about 60 seconds your mother’s going to tell you I’ll be staying with you for awhile, but I want it to be your choice, too,” he whispers to India softly before disappearing. The two women, so wary of one another, no longer have Richard to bind and separate them – and Charlie gladly takes up the mantle.
The story is told through India’s eyes and narration, and as the film progresses we realize India is not your average teenager. She’s deeply attuned to the world around her; “I can count the number of leaves on a tree in five hours,” she says. Instead of painting the bland blue vase in art class, she meticulously pencils the intricate pattern adorning its insides. She senses – can practically hear – the imprints of a tiny spider’s legs on her stockinged ankle. Her intense attentions turn to Charlie, of course.
After she witnesses her mother with Charlie, feels his eyes on her even as he caresses her mother’s breast, she begins to fantasize about him. In a surreal scene, the two play the piano together perched on a comically small bench, and Charlie uses music and breath to bring her so close to heaving crescendo that she has to seek relief elsewhere. Her classmate Whit makes an easy target. As Whit, Alden Ehrenreich basically reprises his role from the YA supernatural romance Beautiful Creatures; in both movies he’s the slightly weird kid who pursues the very weird girl. In Beautiful Creatures, though, he’s actually a good guy. When Whit proves to be nothing he seemed, Charlie comes to India’s horrid rescue.
In a scene that’s probably deliberately reminiscent of Brian de Palma’s Carrie, India masturbates in the shower, finally climaxing with the image of Charlie breaking Whit’s neck. The snap of his Adam’s apple shoves her moaning over the edge. The shower scene in Carrie is also about coming (of age), but de Palma’s vision is deeply affected by the male gaze. That scene is sensual and, at least until the blood flows, geared toward masculine desire. Park’s parallel shower scene is less sensual, more sexual – and it’s urgent. This scene is about female desire, and frankly, less about subjugating that desire than about broadening it. India is fantasizing about gruesome death, and about her uncle. It’s titillating and ugly all at the same time (like I said, Park is brilliant with the grotesque), and nudity isn’t a facet, it’s a function.
After you realize India is sexually aroused by murder, conclusions can be drawn throughout the rest of the movie. India’s a sort of female Dexter Morgan; all those hunting trips with her father, she explains, taught her that “sometimes you need to do something bad so you don’t do something worse.” The many pairs of girlish Oxfords she received each year for her birthday are ceremonially replaced by a gorgeous pair of snakeskin stiletto Louboutins, which Charlie lovingly slides onto her feet. But she can no more love him than Dexter can truly love any of the many women who cross his path. In the end, it’s India for herself.
Director of Photography Chung Chung-hoon is a frequent Park collaborator (he also shot Oldboy and Thirst, Park’s spooky, discombobulating 2009 vampire flick). In Stoker, Chung juxtaposes shadow and light, pattern and shimmer, to create a symphony of jarring, alluring visuals occasionally marred by blood splatter – and even the gore is beautiful. Despite the loving focus on open spaces, Chung frames the film intimately, doorways and hallways playing an integral part in the characterization. The only room in the Stoker mansion that seems to have any heart at all is Evie’s – which in passionate crimson stands in brilliant contrast to her frigid, cruel demeanor. The color scheme of the remainder of the film seems designed around Wasikowska’s eyes, which in many close-ups show as a swirl of blues and browns.
In college, I listened to the soundtrack for Requiem for a Dream when I was studying – the music by Clint Mansell and Kronos Quartet was absolute perfection for the druggy nightmare in that film, and it certainly kept me hyped up and antsy for the requisite all-night paper-writing. Mansell also composed the score for Stoker, and while it isn’t as memorable, it fits as perfectly with Park’s aesthetic as it did for Aronofsky’s.
Screenwriter Wentworth Miller is best known for playing protagonist Michael Scofield on “Prison Break.” Who’d have thought he had writing chops? The screenplay, while quite Hitchcockian (de Palma is noted/occasionally reviled for being a Hitchcock copycat), would have been unremarkable in anyone’s hands but Park’s. It’s a robustly visual movie, a film that relies less on plot twists and more on atmosphere to affect the audience. Some of the biggest issues in Stoker come from (perhaps deliberately) sloppy writing. Why, when Richard knows what his brother is, would he tell Charlie about India? Why would he put himself and his family in the position he did? What happened between Richard and Evie to draw them so far apart? Secondary characters Mrs. McGarrick and Auntie Gwen (played by Oscar-nominated actor Jacki Weaver) exist only to be murdered (again, Hitchcock). The casting choices work fine here, but it is odd to have so many Brits and Australians playing Americans. Wasikowska and Kidman are especially well chosen, as both of them have a tendency toward feeling a bit false, a bit robotic. Their distance from the viewer matches them as mother and daughter in the film and adds a layer of peculiarity – we are not meant to identify with anyone in Stoker.
As with most of Park’s work, you’ll feel discombobulated and strange by the end of Stoker. It’s a surreal experience, a horror story filmed so beautifully it’s impossible to find it horrific. Small details elude the viewer, plot holes that are perhaps meant to lead us astray. It’s an exercise in female sexuality, murder, and isolation that doesn’t quite hit all the right marks but edges you into uncomfortable territory alongside its protagonist – and that’s a good thing.