Tuesday, September 3, 2013

KOFFIA 2013 Review: Stoker / 스토커

Director Park Chan-wook sure likes to keep us waiting for a new movie, with his
last feature length production being 2009’s ‘Thirst / 박쥐’, since then he’s made a couple of short films with his brother, but apart from that things have been relatively quiet. Then suddenly around the start of 2012, rumblings began to emerge that some of Korea’s top directors had their name attached to Hollywood projects - Kim Ji-woon was going to be directing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action comeback, Jong Boon-ho was going to be adapting a French sci-fi comic, and Park Chan-wook, well, he was going to be directing a Wentworth Miller (yes that Wentworth Miller, although he’s credited under the pseudonym Ted Foulke) penned psychological thriller.

While the chances of anyone ever guessing that the guy who made ‘OldBoy / 올드보이’ would end up directing a movie written by the actor from ‘Prison Break’ were pretty slim, general reaction seemed one more of curiosity rather than the usual fan boy bickering and whining that traditionally greets such announcements. ‘Stoker’ managed to keep a sense of mystery to it even after the trailer came out, the basic premise of a mother & daughter grieving over the loss of their husband & father, only to have a mysterious uncle turn up out of the blue to stay with them, was all that was known.

After attending the Screen Trends 2014 forum during the Sydney Film Festival at which Chan-wook spoke about the making of ‘Stoker’, I began to feel concerned about how the final product would turn out. Chan-wook openly spoke out about the difficulties of making a movie within the confines of the Hollywood studio system, and expressed his own frustrations at only having a certain amount of time to wrap up a scene, as well as constantly having producers questioning his artistic decisions and plans. For all intents and purposes, I prepared myself to witness what could have been a potentially great movie, stifled by the overbearing restrictions working in Hollywood brings on any director.

As it happened, less than five minutes into ‘Stoker’, what I was witnessing suddenly brought me to a realization, an epiphany of sorts. Every coin has a flip side, and indeed, far from crumbling to pieces, some people actually thrive when they’re put under pressure, with the burden of deadlines and expectations being used as a catalyst to create something intense and wonderful, as opposed to stale and hurried. I can happily say that this is unreservedly the case with ‘Stoker’, a 100 minute tour de force of everything that makes not only Park Chan-wook brilliant, but the very medium of cinema itself.

No doubt thanks to Fox Studios decision to also meet Chan-wook’s request to bring his director of photography, Chung Chung-hoon, along for the ride as well, the hypnotic and almost trippy visual flair that was found in ‘Thirst’ is here amped up considerably, as the images on screen act as an extension of the Stoker family’s damaged psyche. The narrative of ‘Stoker’ also adopts an almost free form approach, as events and plot points are sometimes teased at perhaps not playing out in real time, or if they even happened at all, but at no point are they force fed to the viewer.

Of course none of this would work without an effective cast, and the trio of Mia Wasikowska as the daughter India, Nicole Kidman as her mother Evelyn, and Matthew Goode as the mysterious Uncle Charles, more than rise to the task. While the role of India could come across as that of a stereotypical Goth or Emo eighteen year old in the hands of a lesser actress, Mia Wasikowska instills the character with a subtle confidence that underpins everything she does. Likewise Nicole Kidman in her role of Evelyn serves as a welcome reminder of what a great actress she can be, with a slow-burning intensity which hasn’t been seen since the likes of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ & ‘To Die For’. As the focal point that the movie hinges on though, Matthew Goode delivers an outstanding performance as the mysterious Charles. Charming, sinister, mysterious, and charismatic often in the same scene, as an audience we’re as much in the dark about his intentions as both India and Evelyn.

To go into any further details of the plot would no doubt spoil the way it unfolds, which would do ‘Stoker’ a great disservice, however if you are a fan of Park Chan-wook or even cinema in general, a viewing of the movie is essential. Perhaps due to the fact that ‘Stoker’ wasn’t written by Chan-wook, the movie sees the director exploring slightly different themes than we’ve become accustomed to. While the subject of suppressed sexuality is still there, the family dynamic here is just as important. Indeed for anyone who’s seen Kim Ji-woon’s ‘A Tale of Two Sisters / 장화, 홍련’, there is an almost similar feel here of watching a family attempting to get along with each other amidst some dire circumstances, entrapped in a large isolated mansion. The most prevalent theme though comes in the form of the controversial question - are mental problems hereditary, and if so, what are the consequences.

Stoker addresses those consequences in a way which any fan of Park Chan-wook will recognize, as images of violence are captured with surreal beauty, and everything is kept on a satisfyingly slow burn before things begin to boil over. I always thought I’d be the last person to say this, but if Chan-wook is going to turn out English language movies of this caliber, than I’d be more than happy to see another one.

By Paul Bramhall

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