For a good hearty while, I had been identifying the then upcoming and now ongoing 2013 in film as the year that would see the Western debuts of three major Korean filmmakers. Right off the bat we got Kim Ji-woon’s The Last Stand, a comeback vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger that opened to modest reviews and little monetary reward. Later in the year we should be getting Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, which may be my most anticipated film in 2013. And right up there with it was Stoker helmed by the operatic Park Chan-wook. It is bittersweet to see these directors leave their native country, flocking to the potential promise of the West, but one cannot help but be eager to see if they are further elevated, sustained or knocked down a peg by the endeavor. Stoker not only shows Park sustaining his masterful directorial credibility, but thriving and visually indulging in his trademarks to the max, bringing this twisted familial Gothic coming-of-age madhouse of a story to life.
Stoker is mainly a directorial showcase with Park taking the inherent elements within this lurid tale and heightening everything, reveling in the subjective details, the significance of objects, obsessive and self-consciously beautiful framing (thanks in no small part to regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon) and intricately multi-purposeful sound design. India can hear and see what other people do not, not in the supernatural sense, but in the sense that all outsiders looking in do.
Stoker is, from a directorial perspective, about the art of silent observation, testing how to best capture that subjectivity on film. It ever-so-slightly recalls Kieslowski and what he does in The Double Life of Veronique, only in the single-minded prioritized task of capturing feeling and transferring a character’s experience to the audience. Using overt symbolism, stretching out moments right up to their expiration date and having an intuition for the beauty of the detail, Park and screenwriter Wentworth Miller make the art of silent observation the central focus from which all other aspects of execution stem. Park has operated with this trademarked operatic formalism for many a year; no compromises and no apologies.
Take a look at those credits. Right off the bat, he grabs us; it’s a snapshot portrait of a sequence. Moments in the life of a sullen dusky-haired loner. Nature pervades, trees are climbed, an affluent but hollow living environment firmly established. This girl hovers between carefree childhood and impending adulthood. She seems to exist out of time even as she passes said time. Her wardrobe and choice of activity make her both easy and hard to place. She is both transparent and a mystery. Each shot is beautiful and special, calling attention to its purposeful composition. Clint Mansell’s music reeks of florid romanticism, like wandering through a garden, periodically interrupted by off-key determination of the piano, but quickly quelled. The score and visuals speaks to the ripe lushness of the film to follow, and introduces the bubbling repression that will steadily erupt throughout. You’ll know from this short sequence if Stoker is for you.
We might not know the specifics of what will motion the story forward, but the general direction is always clear. If filmed modestly, this would be an intriguing but forgettable chamber thriller. Shot by Park, it’s a lingering erotic enfoldment where sex never actually occurs, yet pervades in every single scene. India’s sexual awakening and Charlie as a sexual being are topics of particular focus and fascination. And though, conventionally speaking, there is no sex in the film, it could be easily argued that India’s imagined piano duet with Charlie more than qualifies as a sex scene. It’s treated like one, a perfect fantasy of peaks and valleys, simultaneous cohesion, release and intimate connection. Minute attention is paid to body placement, India’s mounting pleasure via the increased clenching of her crossed feet, and the passionate finger-playing of the pair’s hands. The ever-shifting Phillip Glass piece at the center mirrors all facets of this expression; sex and music are inextricably linked. It’s the most sensuous scene I’ve seen in ages, expertly constructed, focusing entirely on female pleasure, making Charlie an object of desire.
To continue with this thread, Park explores the linkage between pleasure, sex, violence and family and all combinations herein. Most emphatically explored is the link between pleasure and violence, how it emerges in our young female protagonist and how she decides to handle this troubling realization. The staging and use of parallel editing, the latter assumedly in the script, is used to depict key moments, keeping this linkage consistent in addition to all the other formal elements aforementioned. Just as sex isn’t featured, most of the violence is implied, an atypical tameness for Park, but it turns out the director has a flare for making us think we’re seeing more than we do.
All three major players exchange lasting looks of lust, hate, longing, sadism and suppression, fueling Stoker with the language of eyes. Pauses take on the significance of dialogue and vice versa.
Mia Wasikowska gets to shine again after falling through the cracks in both Albert Nobbs and Lawless. Her beady doe-eyes and mostly calm composure are forces to be reckoned with. Apparently the role of Uncle Charlie was written for Matthew Goode and be brings a sinister edge to his sexuality, but more importantly, he gets across Charlie’s stunted growth when it matters. He aptly balances his character’s true intentions and acts as a projection of the way India sees him. Nicole Kidman gets more mileage out of Evelyn than most would and she nails her central speech which is featured in the trailers. Still, I wish she had a little more to do and that the script put her at the level of India and Charlie. The three-tiered emphasis would have and could have been done, adding more to the central dynamics. Though “Summer Wine” certainly speaks to what drives her within the film’s timeframe.
Stoker is a stylish sensory-riddled piece of sustained atmosphere, the kind of film I gravitate towards like a moth to a flame. Was there ever any doubt I would love this? Park puts his spin on this demented tale, a vigorous aphrodisiac, deeply rapturous and steeped in luxuriant emotion.