Sunday, June 16, 2013

Park Chan Wook's Stoker

Around the halfway mark, a riled up Nicole Kidman sits at her dining table and philosophizes about children in the modern world. She believes that people no longer have children to expand their family and continue their lineage; they have them so that they can make their children avoid the mistakes that they made. She then contorts her face, looks at her daughter and spits out that she isn’t one of those parents, and that she cannot wait to watch life tear her daughter apart.

The characters of Park Chan Wook’s first English language film Stoker are every bit as eccentric, unsettling and dysfunctional as the ones found in his Korean films. Mildly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a doubt, Stoker is a gothic psychological thriller that further cements the fact that no other filmmaker in the world makes death, murder, blood, mental breakdown and other related morbidity seem poetic and beautiful. The film chronicles a young girl named India (Mia Wasiokowska) whose life takes a huge turn when her father dies and a mysterious man (Matthew Goode) who claims to be her uncle moves in with them. India’s distraught and vulnerable mother (Kidman) is drawn towards the man’s charm, but India suspects that he hides a dark secret. Soon enough, a rash of murders breaks out and India is pulled into an irresistible vortex of violence to face a disconcerting realization – that a family can be bonded by something other than just blood and genes.

Right from the opening scene you’re magnetized by the film’s inherent, gestating mystery. Director Chan Wook throws in curveballs with his references to the Hitchcock film and the film’s title, which hints towards Bram Stoker and his famous character Dracula. Piecing together the puzzle becomes a guilty pleasure and you’re kept on the edge of your seat, courtesy of Chan Wook’s incomparable knack of infusing unpredictability in every single scene. As the mystery slowly begins to unfold you can’t help but be thankful for the distance between you and the film’s characters – a testament to the terrific performances from the three leads.

Stoker may not be a classic like Chan Wook’s Oldboy or Thirst, but the brilliance of Stoker lies in the fact that the filmmaker managed to turn a mediocre script into a great movie. The film works both as a really twisted metaphor for a teenage girl’s coming of age story and a straightforward horror thriller, and it scores well both ways. Chan Wook tosses various visual and aural clues along the way, from a spider crawling into India’s shoe to a brutal murder juxtaposed with sexual awakening. India is somehow able to hear sounds of significantly lower frequency than most humans, and the filmmakers do a terrific job with the sound design to make us identify with the protagonist. Apart from Clint Mansell’s moody score, craft, aesthetics and timing, the trademarks of Chan Wook are on full display here. His camera wafts around the mansion like a spirit, peering into tiny details which only India’s heightened senses can detect. One memorable scene seamlessly cuts from Kidman’s brushed hair to swaying grass, another is a lusty and darkly funny piano duet where the man provokingly reaches around the girl to hit higher notes. 

Chan Wook doesn’t speak a word of English, he managed to make Stoker with extensive storyboards and an interpreter. Whether he will return to the US for another project remains unclear, but if he does, he deserves to do a film with his own story, rather than one from the grimy drawers of Hollywood. 

(First published in DNA)

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