By Sandra Hrášková
Stoker, a 2013 psychological thriller drama film, is the English-language debut of South Korean film director, screenwriter and producer Park Chan-wook. The narrative depicts the unsettling coming of age story of a young woman repressed by her dysfunctional family. Chan-wook is praised as one of the most renowned and favoured filmmakers in South Korea and has also been gradually gaining popularity worldwide. In interviews, he lists both Western and Asian filmmakers as his figures of influence, for instance the Korean producer Ki-duk Kim and the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. As Kurt Osenlund discovered when interviewing Chan-wook, Stoker was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of Doubt.
Chan-wook has a history of celebrated projects. He won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for his neo-noir action film Old Boy, as well as the Prix du Jury for the vampire horror movie Thirst. He also won the ‘Best Film Not in the English Language’ at the 71st British Academy Film Awards with his erotic psychological thriller The Handmaiden.
The American director Quentin Tarantino has admitted to being a fan of Chan-wook. The two share a similar fondness for the unnerving and intense cinematics. Although where Tarantino’s scenes of gore and violence are explicit, Park Chan-wook’s scenes leave majority of the havoc to be played out in the minds of the audience.
The production and shooting of Stoker took forty days. This is half the time Chan-wook normally takes to produce a film. Because of the tight schedule, the edit of the final movie had to be in Chan-wook’s mind before going into production. Stoker is a multicultural fusion of Korean production design and anglophone cast which makes it a gem, worthy of recognition. The story revolves around India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), whose 18th birthday undergoes a tragic twist when her family receives heartbreaking news. India’s father, Richard, has had a fatal car accident. His death brings an unexpected guest to town, the mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Now India has to deal with her spiteful mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) as well as her growing suspicion towards this secretive yet charismatic relative, just as a series of unexplained disappearances take place.
The film is deliberately slow-paced and its uneasiness steadily builds, minute by minute. Stokers’ family house is the main place of action, evidently due to Chan-wook’s inclination to create stories which mostly take place in a small confined spaces. Chan-wook’s films are not typically driven by dialogue and this is the case with Stoker. Having limited amount of lines in their scripts, the cast must rely mainly on action. Having such high calibre names as Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode and Mia Wasikowska has proven profitable, as many film critics voiced their approval of the cast. Olly Richards of Empire magazine applauded the performances saying that:
Wasikowska comes over like a more damaged take on Alice In Wonderland, Kidman’s Evie is heartbreaking in her own messy way, and Goode glowers handsomely as if he is simultaneously plotting abominable acts and taking part in history’s most sinister fashion shoot. They’re each powerful enough to hold the screen alone, but the scenes that bring all three together are an exhibition in underplaying(18).
Karen Kemmerle of TribecaFilm.com praises Nicole Kidman seeing that she “exploits Evelyn’s fragility with her every glance and gesture”. She also credits Kidman for delivering one of the most indelible monologues of the year 2013¹. The manner in which they portray their characters and their defective interpersonal relationships is one of the main pillars of the film. Matthew Goode describes Chan-wook and his construction of every scene as extremely “prepared”. This preparation is evident through such things as prolonged camera close-ups which result in what Phil Hoad defined to be“picturebook flourishes“.
The narrative of the film is, alongside with acting, driven by imagery and the simulation of sounds and senses. These play a crucial role in the final impression of the film. For instance, the enhancement of noises such as eggshells cracking, lips licking or grass rustling, and the representations of senses like touch, smell and taste maneuvers the plot remarkably well. Stoker is filled with visual and acoustic symbolism cautiously and purposefully placed in exquisite detail. There are several symbols for the process of ageing such as a pair of shoes which have been outgrown, grapes ripening or flowers changing color. Other memorable symbols imitate the relationship between India and Uncle Charlie as the hunt between raptor and its prey.
But Stoker is not just about the ‘look’. The entire film, from the characters’ internal struggles to their dialogue, is overflowing with philosophical messages and metaphors left open for interpretation. The movie openly deals with human emotions like jealousy, blame and vengeance. Dichotomies such as morality and immorality, childhood and adulthood, and sanity and insanity are found in the film. The most prominent feature on this subject is the film’s ability to evoke weighty themes like family affiliation without showing any hint of cliché. India’s female strength and her developing identity are not romanticized, but rather they are depicted in a manner fitting her darkness and violent tendencies. Stoker does not glorify anything. It provokes and challenges its audience.
Stoker is a first-rate mixture of both South Korean cinematics and Anglo-American film making. Its unhurried exploration steered by perverse psychology is perfect for those who enjoy twisted dramas. Despite being released in 2013, it still maintains its novelty thanks to its strong-willed female lead, distressing nature and perplexing portrayal. If you are contemplating broadening your checklist of motion pictures with some cultural pieces…watch Stoker. On the surface it looks just like any other psychological thriller drama but underneath, Park Chan-wook’s touch gives it the right amount of spice required for a distinguished feature.
Sandra is a double-major BA student of English Language and Literature, and Theory of Interactive Media. Alongside her studies, Sandra’s mind is filled with prose, poetry and many other lores. She finds delight in analyzing enigmatic stories, and she often creates poems loosely inspired by the figures of world mythology and folk tales. Her other poetic compositions are mostly influenced by her personal experiences. Sandra does not believe in picking favourites. She acts upon her most sudden and unusual impulses, yet she also overthinks the simplest decisions. Her only unchanged ambition is to publish a book or a poem collection. In essence though, Sandra is a nocturnal creature whose body system runs strictly on caffeine and irony.