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Chan-wook Park's 'Stoker' Is an Underrated Puzzle That Deserves Another Look

Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker in Stoker (2013) (Photo by Macall - © 2013 - Fox Searchlight Pictures / IMDB)

The many symbols throughout Stoker should be viewed as parts of a puzzle to be solved -- or not.

Stoker was released in 2013, directed by acclaimed South Korean Park Chan-wook in his first foray into English language cinema. Whilst the filmmaker has enjoyed a lot of critical success with his films such as Oldboy (2003), Thirst (2009) and the other films in the 'vengeance trilogy', the psychological thriller Stoker received only minimal praise upon its release. Now that a some years have passed it's time to reconsider this relative critical-flop and reassess its place in both Park's filmography and modern American cinema.

Here's a recap of the plot for those readers with short memories or who've yet to see the film. When India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) loses her beloved father in a tragic car accident, her world is disrupted even further by the sudden arrival of her uncle, whom she had never known about. Charles Stoker (Matthew Goode) is younger and more handsome than his brother, and immediately attracts the attention of India's unstable mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). But India is harder to fool. Events transpire, ensuring that the lives of India and her Uncle Charlie become connected. India must decide whether to trust her initial suspicions about him. The film owes a clear debt to Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), but also fuses elements of Psycho (1960) to construct an atmospheric and suspenseful thriller.

Don't get me wrong, Stoker did enjoy some praise. Park's films are always incredibly stylish -- anyone who has seen the long take tracking shot of Oh Dae-su fighting his way through a corridor of never-ending attackers in Oldboy will testify. Similar praise of Park's visuals was also prevalent in reviews of the sumptuous and sensual The Handmaiden (2016). Working with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, Stoker is one of the most aesthetically pleasing films by Park to-date.

The visuals have been a point of critique -- its perceived 'style over substance' -- being too focused on visuals and symbolism. Indeed, Richard Corliss of Time magazine went calls Stoker "glamorously filmed, gloriously artificial". The criticism of a film showing 'style-of-substance' is quite often levelled at good-looking films and raises several questions: first, are 'style' and 'substance' equally crucial components of a film and therefore both need to be present in equal measure? Second, given that much of the 'decoding' of a film depends on the make-up of the individual viewer, isn't the notion of there being a definitive 'substance' quite insignificant?

Further criticisms were levelled at Stoker in terms of its place in Park's cinematic output. Dr. Catherine Wheatley of Sight & Sound magazine, a thoroughly respected film critic, asserted that the film "lacks the visceral punch that many have come to associate with the director", suggesting that because Park had displayed a certain 'visceral punch' in the past, his subsequent films would be measured in relation to that. "It is not Oldboy" wrote the Film Critics Circle of Australia's Andrew Chan, as if Park would have created a better film by working with the same themes, style and messages from a film he made ten years before.

Nicole Kidman as Evelyn Stoker (© 2013 - Fox Searchlight / IMDB)

Rather than comparing Stoker to either Oldboy or a style displayed in any of Park's previous films, it could be a more worthwhile task to assess it in two other ways: either completely in isolation on its own merits, or linking its themes with those which have been displayed in the director's previous work. Furthermore, not only does Stoker get better with additional viewings, if one watches The Handmaiden first,further meaning can be drawn from Stoker. Much of Park's body of work (Oldboy and The Handmaiden included), have dealt with themes of violence, revenge, sex and eroticism, and a post-The Handmaiden re-evaluation of Stoker is a recommended and fruitful exercise.

Now that some of Stoker's criticisms have been rebuffed, there remains the task of discussing its many merits. If films such as Oldboy or the more recent Parasite (2019) have taught audiences anything, it's that modern South Korean films and their filmmakers aren't concerned with conforming to genre conventions. Often cherry-picking components from a variety of genres, or completely contradicting time-honoured traits altogether, many South Korean films confidently meld cinematic ideas together in a way that would make a Hollywood producer's head spin.

This praise can be given to Stoker too. Whereas the aforementioned South Korean masterpieces played with audiences from a genre point of view, Stoker toys with different styles of narrative whenever it sees fit. It draws from Grimm's fairy tales (and their use of retributive justice), from over-the-top nature of family melodramas, and from stories that feature psychosexual symbolism from the psychological musings of Sigmund Freud.

Stoker is full of beautifully-shot images. Objects such as pianos, spiders, belts and hairbrushes are pieces of a puzzle from which the audience can attempt to construct meanings. Multiple references are made to 'the hunter and their prey' throughout the film: The film's title seems to reference Bram Stoker and his most famous novel and character, Dracula, who preyed on his victims' blood. Further reference to hunters and their prey is made when Aunt Gwendolyn arrives back at her hotel and on the television in the background is nature documentary. The audience witnesses a large bird of prey swooping down to snatch a helpless mouse, carrying it off to its inevitable death.

India, too, hunts her prey, as shown in several flashbacks to a much-cherished hunting trip with her father. But it is in the form of Uncle Charlie where the most obvious and explicitly violent representation of the hunter comes. Picking off his prey of Aunt Gwendolyn, house caretaker Mrs. McGarrick, and would-be rapist Whip with his favourite weapon of choice -- his belt -- Charlie calmly murders in the manner of an experienced psychopath.

Films, of course, don't have just one intended meaning; objects or entire scenes may convey, or be interpreted, as various meanings. Stoker has many close-up shots of spiders. On one such occasion, India knowingly lets a spider crawl up her leg. Some audiences might view this as a comment on India's personality and her insect-loving nature. However, if a viewer is familiar with commonly assumed meanings of dreams, they might presume this image refers to India being trapped in a relationship -- in this instance, possibly the relationship with her mother, or even the relationship with her deceased father, which is being preserved through memories.

On one level Stoker is a simple film. It has a straightforward plot, is relatively light on dialogue, and conveys a thoughtful tone exemplified by the emphasis on imagery and symbolism. Yet it is 'about' so much more than what's offered on its surface. Stoker is a coming-of-age story, a tale of repressed desire and sexual awakening, exploring the fine and ambiguous lines between fantasy and reality. It's also a great film for fans of cinema, with many scenes featuring a knowing and staged quality, as if the characters are winking at the audience. Cinema enthusiasts should also enjoy the references to Hitchcock's Psycho, most noticeably shown by the overbearing mother, the isolated grand house, and a prolonged shower scene -- albeit with a considerably different tone!

Ultimately, many of Stoker's criticisms at the time of release focused on its emphasis on aesthetics and symbolism. Yet, rather than being considered as flaws, the many symbols throughout Stoker should be viewed as parts of a puzzle to be solved -- or not.

Works cited:

Chan, Andrew. "Stoker review". HK Neo Reviews. 3 May 2013.

Corliss, Richard. " Stoker: Gloom with a View". Time. 28 March 2013.

Wheatley, Catherine. "Stoker review". Sight and Sound. March 2013.

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