Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver
(Fox Searchlight Pictures; US theatrical: 1 Mar 2013)
With films like Oldboy and Thirst, both of which won top awards at the Cannes Film Festival, South Korean director Park Chan-wook established himself as one of the most unique voices in world cinema. His stylized stories of revenge and violence were unlike anything else being done anywhere in the world and announced the arrival of the South Korean cinematic renaissance. The country found itself under the spotlight when its filmmakers began challenging the way in which we perceived their art and paved the way for entire cultural movements that went past cinema to include pop music and fashion.
Out of all its contemporary filmmakers, Park seems to be the one who has gained the most international traction, to the point where Oldboy his most famous movie is currently being remade in Hollywood by none other than Spike Lee. Besides making vastly entertaining movies and developing a knack for punch-in-the-gut-like twists, Park is also a remarkable aesthete and technician who a few years ago even shot a movie using an iPhone 4.
Perhaps one of the director’s most interesting facts is that he’s also a film critic, something that you can perceive in the meticulous way in which his films play out onscreen. He often achieves that strange balance between technical expertise and overpowering emotional involvement. His films often walk a very tight line that could send them off into parody, but instead turn into astonishingly fined-tuned melodramas that play with the outrageous but never feel over the top.
When it was announced that he would be making his English language debut, cinephiles all over the world eagerly awaited as details about this movie were revealed. After what seemed like nothing, Stoker premiered at the Sundance film festival earlier this year where it divided critics some of whom have hailed it as a masterpiece, while others have deemed it a self indulgent mess. The movie opened on limited release in the United States on March 1st and the day before, director Park Chan-wook and actors Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode took part in a roundtable where they went into details about the making of the movie.
Stoker was shot in Tennessee but the artists insist that the plot itself doesn’t necessarily take place there. “Geographically you have no idea where this is going on in America, it is a gothic fairytale and it was shot in the South but it is not depicted as happening in the South” expressed Goode, while Wasikowska added “the director wanted for it to feel timeless and non specific to where it is. I feel it was sort of universal enough in a way.” Goode plays the mysterious Uncle Charlie who enters the lives of Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman) and her daughter India (Wasikowska) after the death of his brother—Evie’s husband—in a car accident.
The suave Charlie is hiding a violent past and soon unleashes his true self upon the impressionable India and her mother, who seems detached from the world around her. “When I first read the script I had the same feeling that I hope the audience has during the movie of not knowing what side India’s gonna fall on” expressed Wasikowska, “whether she’s going to be hero or antihero, I liked that until the end we were kinda guessing, there were so many questions about who she was.”
The screenplay for Stoker was written by Wentworth Miller of Prison Break fame, who wrote it using a pseudonym, in fear he wouldn’t be taken seriously by the industry. The screenplay was blacklisted and then attracted producers Ridley Scott and Tony Scott (who died during post production) who hired Park. When asked about how he chose to make this his English debut, the director said that the script arrived at the precise moment, after he had completed work on Thirst,which had been ten years in the making. Stoker announced the beginning of a new chapter in the director’s career and resonated with him in personal ways too. “The script has to do with a family of three, the making of which is the same of my own family” he said, adding that “the script took a very traditional family structure and turned it on its head” which is something that interested him.
The screenplay draws largely from the works of Alfred Hitchcock, particularly Shadow of a Doubt, in which Joseph Cotten plays the murderous Uncle Charlie who wreaks havoc in a small American town. In that movie, Theresa Wright plays the niece, who like India is both seduced and disturbed by her uncle. Stoker however riffs on this and seems to explore the nature of evil, as we see India become more and more like her uncle. Can we inherit the need to do bad things?
“[India] starts off very insular, she is empowered by the end,” expressed Goode “when you see innocent youth, particularly women, turn into something that’s evil is kinda more scary. Cause you associate, sex and murder and violence with something male.” The film is filled with symbolism that links India and Charlie to hunting, particularly as the young woman seems to be obsessed with hunting and stuffing animals (yet another Hitchcockian motif).
When asked about the influence of the master of suspense in the movie and in her performance—which unarguably recalls Joan Fontaine among other Hitchcockian heroines—Wasikowska revealed “[Hitchcock] wasn’t mentioned to me as something to look into as research. The link to Hitchcock has more come about now, rather than when we were filming.” India seems like what characters the actress has played before like Jane Eyre, would be like if imagined by a more twisted mind. “It’s kind of like Billy Wilder meets Lynch” said Goode of the film’s central incestuous relationship, while adding that it was fun playing an evil character.
Unsurprisingly both actors acknowledged that the film’s success was owed to its director, whom Wasikowska called “pretty brilliant”. “[The] obvious difficulty is that he didn’t speak English,” she added, “but he was so flawless after just a couple of days that we didn’t even notice we were talking to the translator.” Park is known for being one of the very few directors who storyboards the entire movie shot by shot during pre-production, something that might scare some actors. “[This] is somewhat disconcerting,” joked Goode, because it made him wonder “is there much for me to do here? Am I going to be trapped in this frame?” Both actors expressed their deep admiration for director Park, whose unique visual style has captured the imaginations of audiences for years. “I hadn’t seen his films before,” revealed Wasikowska, “I’d heard of him and Oldboy, but after signing up for the movie I marathoned them. It was quite intense!”
Violence and sex are present in all of Park’s movies and some of them have been under the scrutiny of conservative audiences who feel he highlights them. “Rather than necessarily being about bad blood and predisposition for evil, [the movie] is more about violence being contagious. We never know what would’ve happened to India if uncle Charlie had never showed up,” said Wasikowska, while Goode added that “considering what he depicts onscreen [Park] is very peaceful, he’s very calm and thoughtful, he has an amazing heart and fierce intelligence.”
When asked directly about these subjects in his movies, the director revealed that he feels that there are aspects of sex and violence and his use of it where he’s exercising restraint. There are several scenes in this movie where he chooses to have metaphor take over the real thing. A wonderfully executed piano scene, which brings out the best in Wasikowska and Goode, for example, served as replacement for an obvious sex scene. “No matter what people say about how he’s bold, he feels he’s exercising enough restraint to not appear gratuitous,” contributed the director’s translator.
Stoker is a movie rich in symbolism and visual metaphors, most of which came from the director. Park was inspired by what Miller wrote and developed those ideas, however there were some concepts that were completely new, including Uncle Charlie’s murderous methods which the director developed on his own and also a visual motif of eggs, which are used both as symbols of India’s breaking of the shell, as well as serving as reminders of the repression exerted by her mother. “In the script there was the idea of deviled eggs, but he feels he added something to the concept,” expressed the translator, about the visuals which also happened to be Wasikowska’s favorite visuals in the movie.
After watching the movie, one might wonder how did the actors manage to pull themselves back to earth after the stylized, often harrowing, melodrama displayed onscreen. “Me and Matthew had a regular Sunday night tradition of hitting all the honky tonk bars in Nashville,” laughed Wasikowska, “we used to watch the Time Jumpers too,” added Goode, “Vince Gill plays with them every Tuesday. I was in awe of all of these 70-year-old musicians… the stories are so good!”
* * *
Stokeris in theaters now and expanding throughout the country.