South Korean director Park Chan-Wook has won a cult following, largely due to his film Oldboy (look for the remake by Spike Lee). An ultra-violent vision of vengeance rendered with impeccable control, Oldboy features incest, an octopus swallowed live, and a bit of amateur dentistry that either provokes nervous laughter or a swift exit from the theater.
Now with Stoker, maestro of mayhem Park has staked an outpost in English-language film. It's a deliciously unhinged exercise in stylish horror studded with a stellar cast including Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, and Matthew Goode.
India Stoker (spiritual cousin to Bram) has just lost her adored father Richard in a suspect car accident. She silently seethes at her mom Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who seems more liberated than grieving -- perhaps due to the arrival of Uncle Charlie (Goode), the handsome, debonair younger brother of Richard. In an early touch of creepola, Charlie is first sighted during the graveside funeral as he towers over the proceedings from a tall sepulchre.
Before you can say Dracula, Uncle Charlie has invited himself to stay and the housekeeper on the Stoker's opulent estate has vanished. Charlie works his insinuating charm on both the unbalanced Evelyn and her daughter, tailing the girl to school and sending her to fetch ice cream from a basement freezer that houses more than frozen delicacies. A cat-and-mouse game ensues between Charlie, who's lugging a load of dark baggage, and India, who wields a mean pencil to discourage bullies at school and may have inherited the family's sociopathic leanings. Will India succumb to Charlie, join forces with him, or unleash an agenda all her own? A gothic fairy tale disguised as a coming-of-age story about a closed-off girl, Stoker lends new meaning to female empowerment.
There's a semi-attempt in Stoker to explore the notion of sociopaths as "bad seeds" versus evil as contagious. But a better reason to see Stoker is Park's high-wire style melding mayhem with hyper-controlled camera work from his longtime DP Chung-Hoon Chung. The pair lend Stoker a macabre beauty, using layered cross-cutting to capture the fever dream of its characters.
I recently sat down to discuss Stoker with Matthew Goode (who stepped in after Colin Firth got too busy to do the part), Mia Wasikowska, and Director Park, as he's called in Korea.
This does not look like a Hollywood film. Was there any difference in an director's approach to filmmaking?
Matthew Goode: Director Park was so meticulous. I've never seen anyone come to pre-production with 90 percent of the film made in his mind and drawn out frame by frame. He story boarded the hell out of it -- not with stick men, but all beautifully drawn by a team of people. He'd say, We can't film in this location because I haven't got the color of the walls the right eggshell. That was mind-blowing.
How do you read your character Charlie and how did he see his relationship with India?
Goode: Charlie's lonely, isolated, trapped in the past. He's a man-child who never really grew up, a mix of very masculine and innocent. His niece is like him and recognizes a kindred spirit. She thinks, finally I'm not alone in the world.
The movie asks, is evil inherent, is there such a thing as bad blood and a predisposition to violence? But with these complex psychologies we didn't seek to answer every question. The audience is too intelligent for that. But though India's relationship with Charlie never got explicitly sexual, when you see her in the shower you get the link between sex and violence. With each generation in this weird family, the characters grow stronger. Though she's attracted to him and sees him as a mentor, she feels he has to go. We're bizarrely happy for her to get away from the tentacles of her mother.
And how did you see your character India?
Mia Wasikowska: She's walking a thin line and you don't quite know which way she's going to go. Is she a hero or anti-hero? With Charlie she feels known. As a really isolated person it's the first time she's had that experience and she's excited by it and fearful. What's fascinating is you don't know who's in control of the dynamic between India and Charlie: who's the hunter and who's the hunted. Director Park said it's not so much a question of bad blood in this family, and more an issue that violence is contagious.
How did you prepare for the role?
Wasikowska: We looked at paintings by Balthus -- the young girls are quite unaware of their sexuality and there's also an older man painting them. Modigliani: his female portraits have a blank passive face and there's a stubbornness in them. And John Everett Millais.
One reason I'm eager to see Stoker again is to experience its technical wizardry. Director Park, can you talk about the film's impressionistic, non-chronological editing style?
Park Chan-Wook: That element was already in the script and I decided to expand it throughout. Like the shower sequence interwoven with the murder -- to some degree it was already there in the script. I took other scenes and dissected them into smaller pieces and ordered them in meaningful cross-cutting sequences. We'd find different pieces of action performed by different characters and we'd interweave multiple time frames -- maybe 2, 3, or 4 different ones. So there's a lot of cross-cutting between multiple time frames to give a sense of reality mixed with fantasy. I was aiming to build a musical rhythm through mixing independent elements, all of it driving forward to convey Fate.