August 1, 2013

Stoker - Korean (sort of) film review

Film poster for StokerStoker is the first English-language film by Korean director Park Chan Wook. Park is well-known in Korea, mostly for vengeance-themed and horror films. Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode play the leads. The film also features Nicole Kidman, a longtime favorite of mine who never seems to age.

By U.S. standards, Stoker is shocking (yes, there are still a few things that can shock us), with an astronomically high ick factor, yet it’s so stylistically novel that it’s hard to stop watching.

The writer of the original screenplay (Wentworth Miller) describes it as starting from the Hitchcock film, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), but proceeding “in a very, very different direction.” I tracked down Shadow of a Doubt after I saw Stoker. The similarity doesn’t run deep. Stoker is not only a lot more twisted and adult, it ends very differently for the female protagonist.

Mia Wasikowska as India in StokerHitchcock’s heroine is admirably spunky for her era, but remains, as she began, a nice girl, albeit one who has had a harrowing experience, and learned to be careful what she wishes for. Park’s heroine is something else, finding in herself someone quite different from the grieving, defiant teen we initially see. A lot has changed since Shadow of Doubt – not only the roles of women, but also whose head an audience is willing to get into.

Although there are no Asian actors in Stoker, there are telltale signs of Korean sensibility for the observant Kdrama fan. It’s not much of a spoiler to mention the incest theme, since it’s hinted at even in the trailer. The plot revolves around secrets, jealousy, revenge, and transformation. There is a pronounced focus on the actors’ eyes, even to the point of artificial enhancement in some scenes. Plus, blood trails. And last, but not least, a man gives a woman a significant gift of shoes.

The staging is very visual and stylized, well-anchored by excellent, if equally stylized acting. Mia Wasikowska in particular brings a truly masterful blend of confusion and creepiness to her role, while the ever-versatile Kidman is the hot-mess mother from hell, like her character in The Others unbuttoned.

Colin Firth was originally cast for the Matthew Goode role. I wish I could see that version, too. Firth is 18 years older than Goode (though forever 35 in a dripping white shirt to me), which would’ve put an interestingly different spin on the relationships, shifting the dynamics of the whole film.
The back of a woman with a short skirt and bare legs standing in a field is silhouetted against the early morning sky
Taken for itself, Stoker is a skillful and mesmerizing horror cum coming-of-age story. But it’s also an expression of Korean male attitudes towards female sexuality, and as such, is totally over the top. Associating female sexual liberation with chaos and death is perhaps an inevitable phase in the journey towards gender equity, but what a ridiculous over-reaction! Korea really, really needs more female directors.
India's hand grips a pencil, dripping blood from the point, next to her white pleated skirt
Although the script was not Korean-authored, it floated around Hollywood for awhile before Park Chan Wook took it on. He made some telling script changes. Notably, in the original script, India’s dad keeps her away from guns and violence. I can’t help thinking the film as it finally emerged owes a lot to the U.S. cable series Dexter. See if you agree.

Stoker premiered in January at Sundance, to mixed reviews. It opened in US theaters in March, and was released on DVD in June. Stoker is rated R.

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