Chan-wook Park’s Stoker

I had the great pleasure of being at the BFI’s premiere of Chan-wook Park’s Stoker last night.

Having been shown the excellent Oldboy years ago I did the only sensible thing I could at the time and immediately tracked down the rest of the Vengeance trilogy, and later  the entirely charming, if pretty bizarre, romance, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK. So imagine the look of joy on my face when the February programme came through the letterbox. In fact, before you go any further if you haven’t seen the above films go and watch Oldboy, at the very least, now. Now. I mean it.

Done that? Excellent, we can begin then.

Starting with the obvious, hats off to Mia Wazikowska’s eerie India. She’s definitely channelling Wednesday Addams and Carrie, but India is a very different character; much more plausible, restrained and very much in control. Faced with her brittle mother (Nicole Kidman) India has to be in control in fact and it’s amply demonstrated when she’s at school, home and elsewhere. It’s a masterful and subtle performance in fact because she has this permanent sense of knowing exactly what she needs to where the audience doesn’t. She is both captivating and alien, graceful and petulant, wistful and utterly grounded in the here and now. The loss of innocence can be hard to track in cinema, because there is that tendency to show the ‘young’, the ‘old’, and the defining moment, all notably distinct. Wasikowska, Chan-wook et al remind us that it is a much more gradual process with steps both backwards and forwards.

As for Nicole Kidman’s Evelyn, well the story isn’t about her so her fronting and transparent desires are well understated. You’ll know what she wants and thinks throughout the film, you’ll also be pretty sure that she doesn’t realise how obvious she is being which makes some of her moments of revelation pretty harsh. In fact, a lot of it happens off-screen for her (a notable trait of this film) so you have to piece it together yourself. She’s at times horrible, but at times not. So much so that at times you start to wonder if maybe you were just mis-understanding her grief.

And of course, Matthew Goode as Charlie who is the fundamentally disturbing lynch-pin of the film. He doesn’t seem human (tell me if you see him eat or drink anything at any point), and spends a lot of the time acting more like the idealised vision of what Evelyn wants him to be. As with everything else in the film his performance is understated and leaves you guessing as to what he wants and why he wants it until he does it. There are so many moments a lesser film would have veered off into rampant melodrama that he smiles sweetly at and walks away from, and lord is it creepy.

A quick aside is needed here to highlight the music. Clint Mansell is bang on again but the shining moment is the impromptu piano duet that balances on a knife-edge. Aside from the music being beautiful (Philip Glass making a rare foray into a ‘tune’ there) so much hangs on it, and it’s incredibly tense. There are a few other moments that play on the same thing so let me ask you this, do you think you can tell things like suppressed fear or happiness apart every time? And what if they’re the same thing?

It’s spoiling nothing to tell you that India, has heightened senses. She tells you as the credits roll by in fact. What she doesn’t tell you is how much that observation, and Park-wook’s inimitable sense of sound, colour and texture pervade this film. Remember the way things in Oldboy leapt out of the screen at you? Wallpaper, fabrics against stone, even the pulsing flesh of a hydrostatic skeleton – all of it was bound into the telling of the story. Exactly the same thing happens here in Stoker. Cracking egg-shells, lace bed-spreads, curtains, leather, hair, stone and even a few scatterings of dirt – it all ties people and themes together so that the world they inhabit is more than an environment, it is very much of them as they are of it. If you don’t get what I mean, watch the dirt (even the tiniest amounts), who wears what fabrics or the deal with India’s shoes.

This is one of the things that makes Park-wook special for me – he has a handle on visual imagery, but more than that he weaves it into the story. Everything is thematic. It’s the reason you come away with that feeling of discomfort in fact, because your brain is automatically trying to file the information you’ve put in it but, lordy, there are a lot of cross-references… So yes, I could say it’s a Hitchcock-esque psychological thriller about a young woman, her widowed mother and her newly-discovered uncle, but that misses the point. It’s a film about innocence and the journey to adulthood, and it’s a story about outsiders. It’s a story of kindred spirits, romantic rivals, youth against age, self-discovery in a world which doesn’t seem to hold a place for you. It’s a sensory journey of a privileged few inhabiting their bubble, of sybarites pursuing their desires and of a beautiful world underneath it all.

I could go on, but that would be tedious. Suffice to say that whilst the film isn’t of the real world, innumerable threads of the real world are woven into it. All this ambiguity, moments on the edge that shift depending on how you look at them, those are real.

It’s excellent. Go see it.

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