I was pretty confident that the highlight of my summer in terms of entertainment was going to be seeing Pacific Rim on the big screen. But less than a week after the fantastic time I had watching mecha battle kaiju on the big screen for the first time, I got a DVD in the mail of a film that was I was excited about the previous spring. Sorry, del Toro; your big screen spectacle was thoroughly outdone by one of the world’s most underrated filmmakers on my small screen.
Why the small screen for a film I was anticipating so much? Well, that’s a funny thing. Chan-Wook Park is a South Korean national treasure best known for his Vengeance Trilogy, which was possibly the best trilogy since Star Wars when it was released. The recently remade ownage classic Oldboy was the middle film in that series of artistically brilliant exploitation films that were narratively unconnected aside from the theme of brutal revenge.
I’ve seen and very much enjoyed every film Park has put out, with topics ranging from the tragic futility of the divide between the North and South Koreas to cyborg girls in mental institutions to vampires. Was I looking forward to his Ridley Scott-produced American debut featuring A-list leading lady, Nicole Kidman? You bet your ass.
I looked up the release date for Stoker and it fell on my vacation week. So much joy. But when I got on the internet to look for showtimes on March 1st, I found that no theaters in the vicinity were showing it. Why? Because f**k Hollywood, that’s why. This was not the first nor will it be that last time that a film I was hotly anticipating only played in a few major cities while the numerous cinemas in my area were each packed with the exact same garbage as each other. It was Ryuhei Kitamura’s Midnight Meat Train all over again.
Today, we have come to mourn the passing of our last shred of respect for Hollywood.
Okay enough preamble, what is it about this film that thrilled me so much? Well, it’s just a sterling example of a master filmmaker at work. Stoker is a masterpiece of the thriller genre; a perfect film to point at and say to aspiring filmmakers “that’s how you do that”. It combines a simple narrative with visual poetry that works on multiple levels with exceptional foreshadowing, character development, sinister mysteries, and a twisted sensibility, utilizing these aspects for a post-feminist coming of age story that stands apart from anything else in the genre.
Before I continue, let me clarify something a lot of people don’t understand. In modern political terms, a feminist is a person who believes that somebody should give women empowerment. A post-feminist is somebody who believes women are capable of taking it for themselves. This will be on the test.
Park’s subject in Stoker is an antisocial high school girl, India, whose father died on her 18th birthday. When an uncle she never knew she had turns up for the funeral, India’s mother invites him to stay with them for a while, kicking off a complicated dynamic between the three of them that keeps the film riveting even in the relatively slow first act.
Any time you see a Chan-Wook Park film, it’s best to go in relatively blind so I’m going to skimp on plot details and focus on what this film absolutely knocks out of the park: mood and execution. Park and his actors capture the anxiety of the situation on so many levels, it’s staggering. The incredibly awkward relationship between mother and daughter being made even more uncomfortable by the arrival of what appears to be essentially a younger version of their deceased loved one out of nowhere is well-played by all.
It’s so nice to have a totally not-creepy man around the house.
Another thing Park does masterfully is create a sense of tension and menace, even in scenes where there is nothing overtly menacing or tense happening on the screen. It’ a great way to show the world from an angry young woman’s point of view, with sound effects being exaggerated to unnerving levels and the obnoxiousness of the adult’s transparent attempts at displaying condescending compassion for her antisocial condition coming through loud and clear.
And if I’ve led you think this is just some slice of life family drama, you’d be wrong. Stoker may not have the pacing or overall style of a typical horror film, as most of Park’s work doesn’t, but like most of that work this film’s soul is pitch black and pulls zero punches when it gets going. It takes the long way around before getting to the overt horror content, but the time spent building up and establishing the characters and setting is perfectly utilized as it all comes together.
The use of music in the film is something else that contributes heavily to the film’s mood. One of the key scenes of the film is an incredibly intense piano duet between uncle and niece that operates on several disturbing levels while retaining the beauty and elegance of the music itself. And it’s very likely you’ll have Nancy Sinatra singing “Summer Wine” in your head for days after you watch this too, so get ready for that.
In addition to the family psychology and horror aspects, I mentioned before that Stoker is a post-feminist coming of age story. This is not readily apparent early in the film, but by the end it’s clearly all about India’s journey to adulthood and coming into herself and who she’s going to be. The conclusion of her story will give you a lot to think about and I absolutely love that Park didn’t take the easy way out and chose to muddy up the waters as much as possible en route to the film’s end credits.
This is how you encapsulate a coming of age theme in a single shot.
Now that I’ve heaped sufficient praise on the artistic talents of one of my favorite directors, let’s talk about the cast. Kidman has been off my radar for years after a lot of poor choices (starring in half-assed remakes for one). In fact, I think Eyes Wide Shut was the last time I loved me some Nicole. But I feel like this film could have done for the beautiful former Mrs. Cruise what Pulp Fiction did for Travolta back in the day if it had been given the chance and not utterly ignored by the media. Her performance here as the slightly inebriated, fully widowed shut-in with high society pretensions, Evie Stoker, reminded me why I used to adore her as an actress.
And yeah, Mia Wasikowska as India. She’s the star here and she absolutely KILLS IT. Playing one of those uncommunicative girls that make people wonder if they are autistic or something may not sound like too impressive of a role considering all you really have to do is not look at or talk to anyone, but this character is so layered it’s insane. She really combines the emotional inconstancy of youth with the sexual awakening of a young woman and a disregard for social norms that makes for fertile soil to grow a complicated character from. Her family and peers don’t understand her, and neither will you until she’s damn good and ready for you to.
Matthew Goode probably has the easiest role of the three stars as he mostly gets to stay in cool creepy uncle mode whenever he’s not flirting or making out with Kidman. Pretty cool gig if you can get it. His character clearly sees India as a sociopathic kindred spirit to himself and his desire to slowly corrupt her is palpable at times. But then again, things aren’t always what they seem. Still waters, my friend.
The film is layered deep enough to be open to a very wide variety of interpretations, but the one I’m sticking with for the moment is that the key relationship is not the obvious cat-and-mouse dynamic between uncle and niece, but the metaphorical representations of feminism and post-feminism portrayed by mother and daughter, respectively. Evie seeks fulfillment through romance and laments the futility of her high society education that taught her perfect French as she sits at home and let’s life pass her by. India, on the other hand, is not what she appears and is independent and thoroughly satisfied with who she is regardless of what anybody else thinks. She needs nobody’s help.
Smile, you son of a…
By the end of the film, my head was swimming at how perfectly executed this story was. From the elementally unnerving notion of a girl who shies away from human touch but will allow a spider to crawl up her dress or a mother telling her own child that she can’t wait to see life tear her apart to the masterful use of flashbacks, disturbing imagery, and occasional eye-popping bursts of color (red red vino, in particular) in scenery that favors a muted palette, Stoker is an absolute must-see for serious cinema fans with a twisted sensibility. This film is an absolute beast, and I’m pretty confident it is going to be my pick for film of the year. And whoever made the decision not to give Stoker a proper wide release: I wish them torment matching that of a victim in a Lucio Fulci flick.