Park Chan-Wook is a terrific filmmaker. Hailing from South Korea, he found international acclaim with his Vengeance Trilogy, a trio of films [Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005)] dealing with the theme of violent retribution. These movies, along with his follow up – the excellent vampire film Thirst (2009) – are undeniably visceral and heart-racing while offering up a plethora of unforgettable images.
Yet, despite my love of Chan-Wook’s own brand of extreme cinema, something about these earlier works can be quite alienating. Perhaps, it’s the ultra-violence, or the scenes following the violence where all sorts of bodily fluids freely flow from the victims. Maybe, it’s the strain of jet-black comedy that manages to permeate through most of his work. Something which can feel slightly wrong amidst scenes of unspeakable cruelty e.g. the killing of children. It could also be the acting styles of his Korean casts – performances which come across to Westerners as slightly OTT and off – becoming lost in translation. Yet, all these niggling concerns I had with Chan-Wook faded away as he made the jump from Korea to Hollywood. Enter 2013’s Stoker.
From the unlikely pen of Wentworth Miller (star of Prison Break) – one which draws most heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and the gothic literature of Bram Stoker – the film stars Mia Wasikowska as the strange but bewitching young protagonist India Stoker. Bordering the cusp of adolescence, her peaceful existence with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) is shattered when the latter dies unexpectedly in a car accident. At the funeral, India meets her uncle on her dad’s side, Charlie (Matthew Goode), a person whose existence she was previously unaware of. While at first, she doesn’t take too kindly to the new arrival, particularly as he begins to form a relationship with Evelyn, eventually the two discover that they share similar disturbing urges.
Stoker is often the movie I hold up as an example of how a great director can elevate material. That’s not to say Miller’s script is poor – it’s filled with ace dialogue and disturbing twists. Yet, while its drawing upon gothic traits audiences have enjoyed in literature and in cinema for centuries, its Chan-Wook’s incredible direction that makes Stoker feel like nothing one has seen before. The way he layers imagery and scenes together is so fluid. Past and present intermingle constantly, almost co-existing. Take for instance one of the most beautiful transitions I’ve ever seen on-screen. Kidman’s hair being combed in the present suddenly becomes a vast field of wheat in the past.
Every frame within Stoker seems like it’s been agonised over. Even minor moments carry such symbolism. An early scene sees India roaming her giant garden barefoot in a beautiful white gown. She notices a blister on her foot which she pops with a piece of pine. Out comes this clear white puss. The scene lasts ten seconds and occurs as part of a montage during the opening credits, yet it signifies exactly what happens within the plot. Family tensions bubble and eventually spill, unleashing previously unseen ugliness and evil.
Chan-Wook’s direction almost seems to punctuate Miller’s script, drawing as much gothic pleasure as he can out of it. Within Gothicism, there are certain traits which re-occur again and again in some form another – hidden space within a home being symbolic of repressed desires, deviant sexuality, imagery of doubles signifying the duality of characters. While watching Stoker, one can always feel the joy Chan-Wook is finding incorporating these elements naturally into the drama. A key example is the scene of India’s sexual awakening. Again the juxtaposition between the past and present flows amazingly. Following Charlie’s killing of Whip (Alden Ehrenrich, pre-Hail Caesar) – a fellow student at India’s school who attempts to rape her – our central heroine (or anti-heroine?) masturbates herself in the shower. She climaxes at the thought of Whip’s neck being snapped by her uncle’s belt, the cacophony of images mustered by Chan-Wook are perhaps the ultimate display of warped sexuality in gothic cinema.
Before his English language debut, one could tell Chan-Wook was highly skilled at his own brand of disturbing thriller. Yet, in reigning in his hyper-violence and working with a universally incredible cast (between this, Jane Eyre and Crimson Peak, Wasikowska is the ultimate gothic heroine), he demonstrated that he could do something different. Stoker is far more classical, as anything that draws so heavily on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt will undoubtedly be. Yet, Chan-Wook proved he was talented enough to shift gears, while still retaining his dark and transgressive imagery – pushing something so classic into uncharted territory. If this more restrained and mature approach is retained in his latest work – period piece The Handmaiden (out 14th April in Ireland) – viewers should be in for another absolute gem.