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[HanCinema's Film Talk] Who is Park Chan-wook?: "Stoker" and the Re-birth of a Master.

2013/02/23 | 528 views | Permalink

"Stoker" will be coming to Korean audiences next week Thursday. The film is a British-American psychological thriller distributed by the Fox Entertainment Group's "Fox Searchlight Pictures" division. It's an American-based film studio that focuses on independent and British films. The company's biggest success came in the form of the 2008 Oscar winner "Slumdog Millionaire", which grossed more than $377 million worldwide.

"Slumdog Millionaire" was directed by Danny Boyle, who is also the chairman of the U.S-based Danaher Corporation; and his own studio Indian Paintbrush was involved in the production of "Stoker", along with director Ridley Scott's own production house Scott Free Productions.

The script was credited to one Ted Foulke, a pseudonym for the Hollywood actor Wentworth Miller (most famous for his role in the Fox Broadcasting Company's popular series "Prison Break") who makes his screenwriting début with this film. The script was included in Hollywood's "Black List" of the 10 best-unproduced screenplays in 2010: "I just wanted the scripts to sink or swim on their own", Miller said.

The producers involved were the iconic Ridley Scott himself, his younger brother Tony, and Michael Costigan who is actually directing the prequel to "Stoker", entitled "Uncle Charlie", that Miller also wrote. Sadly, Tony Scott took his own life during the production, and thus "Stoker" represents the last film he would be involved in before his death. 

Among all this talent, history, significance, and interest we can include the Korean director Park Chan-wook as he makes his 'début English-language film'. Working alongside him was his long-time cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon ("Old Boy", "Thirst", "The Unjust", all as cinematically praiseworthy as the next, brilliant really). Many in the audience may be tempted to automatically acknowledge the film as 'one of Park's', but given the complicated nature of the film's production and the strong authorial voices involved-whose film is this really?

The memory of Tom Scott as a "creative visionary whose mark on film is immeasurable", in the words of Tom Cruise as he comments on Scott's legacy, for example, would unapologetically have "Stoker" as one of his last two unfinished films (the other being "Out of the Furnace" also set for release this year). A day after Tom's death the L.A Times suggested as much in an article they ran, entitled: "'Stoker', 'Out of the Furnace' among upcoming Tony Scott movies". Whether out of knee-jerked respect for the man, or the journalist 'shorthand' used in that title, the acclamation of ownership is there to be acknowledged.

The general assumption is that the director(s), writer(s), and/or the producer(s) are largely responsible for generating the most artistic contributions to a film's realisation. Such as we see with marketing tags/authoritative signifiers like: "From the Producer of 'Gladiator'", and, "A Ridley Scott Film". In addition, often such credit is also bracketed under, if not solely claimed by, larger organisations, studios and distributors. They stand as marks/brands of perceived or expected quality, a promise of class that is no doubt achieved through their assumed oversight and considerations. Everyone has specific expectations for a Disney film, a HBO T.V series, the latest Pixar or a new film from Fox itself, and many of the top studios and distributors are well-known through their recognisable branding and animated logos that open any given feature; and, in the case with the "Stoker" trailer, it is frequently followed by a humbling introduction aimed at promoting the most marketable member of the production team. I think this point is well demonstrated by Tim Burton and his inherent influence of the marketing of specific 3D stop-motion animations, as his influence, even as a producer, defines many films, often quite simply incorrectly, as being a "Tim Burton film", often confusing audiences or redirecting their recognition of the film entirely.

Park Chan-wook's status as a 'visionary' director stem from his current filmography and the resultant 'worldview' that emerges when audiences experience those productions. This is perhaps the biggest difference between first-time directors, even from those who have created a number of films, and those who we might consider to be 'auteurs'. Without a perceived, or yet established, thematic, stylistic, or ideological sense of authored intent, as an expression realised within the film, one cannot begin to speak of authorship in any meaningful sense outside that of a film's trivia or ability to represent itself as existing outside of the actual cinematic experience. C. Paul Sellors paraphrases an interesting point in his book "Film Authorship: Auteurs and other Myths" by writing that there is a "difference between a director who creates a work of cinema and one who films a scenario". Sellor's is describing the opinion of Francois Truffaut as he distinguishes between 'scenarist' films, and those directors who "create a work of cinema". Critics, audiences, and the international film industry agree that Park safely falls into the latter of these two descriptions; while newcomers are still, by definition, unknown and singular, and lack self-reference and significance, resulting in our need to create other, often abstracted, connections to 'more familiar' sources of authorship and meaning.  

Cinephiles, critics, and many local and international audiences would have encountered much of Park's work that led him to become the successful and creative force he occupies within the industry. Few will forget his bloody vengeance trilogy spearheaded by the international acclaimed "Old Boy", his artistic idealism than came through in sensitive times in "JSA - Joint Security Area", or his creative experimentation with technology in "Night Fishing" as Korean myths were re-created through the new advancements in mobile filmmaking. His films as a body of work have, and will continue to be, examined and admired for years to come. But will "Stoker" be one for the autobiographical or biographical account of his illustrious film career? And what weight will time give to his efforts in "Stoker"?

The publicity around the film has made special note of it being Park's first 'English-Language film', his 'début' into something other than Korean cinema in which he was raised/rose. This acknowledgment goes beyond simply recognising that Park has somehow 'made it' onto the international stage, with an 'international film'. His past achievements and experience as a director may have allowed him to undertake such an endeavour as this, but I'd guard myself against a reading and treating of "Stoker" as, simply, another or the next film of Park Chan-wook the auteur - it's has more significance than that.

Park no longer had the comforts and familiarity of the Korean film industry, scripts had to be translated and re-worked, creative discussions where handled in a similar manner that had to cater towards the uniqueness of the production experience. Park was working with Miller on actor's début script, under a transnational film distributor and a number of U.S-based studios, both of which are owned by influential filmmakers, but luckily, only one of them also co-produced the film. Not to mention the managing of exceptional, often autonomous at this level in the face of the craft, talent as some of Hollywood's favoured actors and actresses flock to the cause. If "Stoker" is to be authored by Park, then it must truly mark his international 'début', his re-birth and, thus, signal the genesis of a new film 'worldview' or dreamscape we, as the audience, have yet to come to know.

Interestingly, Park cited the minimal dialogue and the scripts "atmospheric" appeals to have influenced his decision to direct. In an interview he commented further on the scripts visual appeals, saying the film "depends entirely on editing, camerawork and sounds in order to describe the dynamic between the characters and their emotions". Perhaps this is the closest point at which Park's previous directorial expression can be mentioned, as the fact that "Stoker" isn't dialogue-heavy and/or driven would've appealed to Park's more stylistic directorial faculties, rather than, say, his skills as narrator found in the, now, more nuanced cultural contextualisation of his previous work.

To discuss "Stoker" in terms of, or from, Park's pervious body of work is to ultimately fail to acknowledge the significance of the film in Park's career. As E.D. Hirsch suggests: "one understands meaning; one judges significance". We cannot 'understand' "Stoker" as a 'Park Chan-wook film' as its meaning (intentional or otherwise) is distorted and fractured through the guise of this international collaboration and the collective creative interference bearing down on it; as well as through film's inherent and unique dealings with problems of 'voice' and ownership. However we can acknowledge and judge the significance of the film as it relates to Park as a filmmaker branching off from the comforts of house and home; and if we are interested, as viewers, in enforcing a continued reading of his work it should be discussed only as a description of inception, and not of a 'pre-knowledge' that might privilege any form of preferred reading.

Like so many in Korea who continue to make their début each year, Park is new to the industry (the English-language one that is) in which "Stoker" was raised and nurtured. Romantic notions of 'Park the auteur' are woefully unequipped to tackle the complicated nature of this film's production. This is because, unlike Park's pervious films, "Stoker" is unique in terms of its origin, production, and the new viewership it would hope to appease. That is exactly what makes "Stoker" the exciting film that is it, not in terms of who 'authored' it or to what degree, but in terms of the chance to experience a master's 're-birth' into cinema.



- C.J Wheeler (

* Christopher is a film writer and a graduate arts student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He lived and worked in South Korea for four years and there he channelled his passion for film into the Korean cinema scene. Driven by his rampant cinephilic needs and Korea's vibrant cinema, Chris now enjoys watching Korean films and writing about what he thinks of them.

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