Friday, 15 March 2013

Stoker: A Fantasy Fulfilled

Stoker is the English language debut of Korean director Park Chan-Wook, of The Vengeance Trilogy fame. The film has received mostly scathing reviews based around criticisms such as ‘style over substance’, ‘unconvincing’ and ‘over-indulgent’. Well, maybe. It’s certainly stylised, a vehicle for a director’s personal vision and contains an unlikely plot, but couldn’t that criticism be applied to Psycho, Pulp Fiction and Blue Velvet?

Park isn’t a director to ascribe any kind of message to his work, dealing instead with stunning visuals and devastating plot twists, but that doesn’t mean that Stoker isn’t rife with an infinite number of themes and symbols to pick over. The other thing about this film is it gives the viewer a reason to be sitting in a dark auditorium on a winter evening – excitement. Sensually speaking, Stoker provides an overdose, from the mint green walls of the Stoker residence to the strains of Nancy Sinatra during a seduction scene. A scene that sees Mia Wasikowska play a piano duet with Matthew Goode whilst suspended in a state of sexual ecstasy is enough to encourage a repeated trip to the cinema. 

The film is a gothic horror centred around India, (Mia Wasikowska) an introverted teenager left with her brittle and beautiful mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) after the death of her father. When her mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) turns up to the funeral and begins to charm Evie, India retreats from this charming stranger, suspicious, resentful and watchful. The film veers in genre from wicked stepfather fairytale to crime-spree love affair and finally to somewhere completely different. And it’s not about vampires, despite the leading title. However, on second thought, it is rather heavy on talk of blood.

Since this is a director whose most famous film contains a disturbing twist based on familial relationships – a twist that will temporarily shatter anyone who has ever been a father, daughter, brother or sister – it seems reasonable to explore his portrayal of the Stoker family. To begin with, there is the strained mother-daughter relationship between Evie and India.

Evie’s bitterly honest words to her daughter, of whom she seems resignedly terrified, ‘personally speaking I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart’ slightly echo a line from another Gothic horror, another film symbolising female adolescence and burgeoning sexuality. Ginger Snaps (2000) tells the story of two teenage sisters whose close relationship is threatened when the elder of the two simultaneously hits puberty and becomes a werewolf. In a scene in which Ginger recounts her realisation of her blood lust, she says, ‘I get this ache... and I thought it was for sex, but it's to tear everything to fucking pieces.’ By the end of Ginger Snaps, the pre-adolescent Ginger has disappeared, along with her sisterly relationship. All that’s left is an autonomous being, a monster.

Despite the emphasis on relationships of all kinds, from the familial to the romantic, films like Stoker imply that at least the final step of this journey towards maturity requires compulsory loneliness. This could be why, at the end of most gothic horror films featuring strange girls, from The Craft to Carrie, there is often one girl left, wrenched apart from her fellow characters by an event that has changed her irrevocably. Though her friends, lovers and relatives may have a hand in pushing her along, she reaches the other side alone.

This idea that once grown we are on our own must leave Park thinking about what it is we can instill in our children before it is too late. Park has made a career of hauntingly beautiful but violent films dealing in dark themes of revenge, incest and the origins of evil. In 2006 he made a romantic comedy, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok, mainly so his daughter would be able to watch one of his films. Stoker contains a reference to his daughter, explained by Park in an interview for The Guardian. 'There's this element I brought into the film, this talk of wine', says Park of a loaded dinner-table scene:
There's a line where Evie appreciates how mature the wine is, and Charlie says: well, you can't compare it to a younger wine, which is too tannic. But we realise later on that he didn't pick the wine for Evie, but for India. When he pushes the wine to India and says, "1994: the year you were born." And that was the year my daughter was born, so it was a nod to her. 
In the film, India’s father literally arms her before he dies, teaching her to hunt. How well or badly this skill will mix with her nature, only time will tell. Park has said he is interested in the origins of evil, and Stoker asks this question without ever really answering it.

Another director ceaselessly accused of putting style over substance and indeed over ethics is Quentin Tarantino. Over his career he has answered questions about violence in cinema, most recently on the subject of his latest film, Django Unchained. He defends his work in his signature straightforward style. 'If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It's one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it.'

'Transportive' may be a more useful word than 'cool'; taking the viewer to a place where the fantasy fulfilled is not necessarily a violent one or a vengeful one, but a simple desire to get everything right first time. In a word: resourcefulness. This feeling of watching a character make a decision and execute it perfectly is one of the most joyful experiences in cinema, because it’s rare we would even let ourselves try. Django, Bond, Bourne and India Stoker are all characters with this quality of resourcefulness. One scene in Stoker involves India pre-emptively arming herself with a sharpened pencil and using it to stab her bully in his fist as he raises it to punch her. 

It may be that resourcefulness is all Park will be able to impart to his daughter, one day she will grow up, watch Oldboy and be faced with horror both around and within her. At the very least she’ll be the goth girl survivor at the end of the movie. At the most? Perhaps the goth girl directing the movie.

Sarah Cleaver

Stoker (Park Chan-Wook, 2013)

No comments:

Post a Comment