In the Spotlight this Week: "Stoker" (2013) by Park Chan-wook...
Earlier this year we saw Kim Jee-woon shoot Arnold in the desert in "The Last Stand", an outsourced mercy killing that was so self-reflexive it was virtually suicide. Bong Joon-ho's "Snowpiercer" has only been out in Korea for a couple weeks now, but already it is in the black and has the international community drooling in anticipation. In the spotlight this week, however, is Park Chan-wook's "Stoker" – a sharply crafted psychological thriller that hates the smell of pastiche on its clothes, and prefers not to leave the house if at all possible. If these three English-language debuts were family, Park's creation would be a disturbing and twitchy introvert, the bad-blooded black sheep that keeps little secrets and sins silently. Made with less than a third of the budget its contemporaries enjoyed, "Stoker" is a modestly priced masterpiece that runs disturbingly deep.
It's India Stoker's birthday, her father is dead, and her feet are sore. At eighteen she is adult now, Richard Stoker did not survive his timely car crash, and India's feet have blisters because the latest Red Shoes (the ones her father gave her every year) are now too small. It is at this critical junction in her life that her mysterious uncle Charlie appears, his move into their family estate approved and selfishly sanctified by her cracked and peeling mother Evelyn. Suspicious of her unknown uncle's arrival and purpose, India keeps her distance and rejects his sudden appearance as the new head of this anaemic family. The film plays like a twisted coming-of-age story and has the appealing texture of a great origin tale. Strangely enough a prequel is in develop, a film that will give some more gravity to uncle Charlie and his past. But in "Stoker" there is no journey here, no great epic character quest for our supposed protagonist to endure, only the witnessing of a choice and the making of a monster as India muses at red fork in her road.
Similar to Park's previous films (particularly his vampire melodrama "Thirst"), "Stoker" comes flecked with philosophical waypoints that problematizes and dramatizes its characters' predisposition to the more sinister pleasures in life. In "Thirst" that came across through our closeness and intimacy with its flawed characters. Here, that same level of narrative magnification occurs, but that sympathetic light that India (as our protagonist) is classically suppose to cast is feathered and burnt. The film projects a disturbing gaze on the family as a whole, exposing a hereditary madness that has now lost its socially conscious counterbalance in Richard Stoker. India's relationship with her deceased father appears, initially, to be but loving memories of quality farther-daughter time. However closer to the film's 'denouement' those once pristine imaginings are re-framed as the flawed father's secrets flood India senses and course – twisting her worldview one pair of Red Shoes at a time as decides which road (or highway) she will venture down.
The film's opening and closing scenes were particularly memorable, bracketing the film's enigmatic sensibilities with as much clarity as one could hope to uncover in this deranged domestic drama. The film opens with shots of India Stoker wondering around her family's estate, she is, at this stage, alone and unknown to us as viewers. In one shot she stops and sits atop a rock to pop a fresh and bulging blister on her foot (see main image), in doing so her placement and position mirrors that of the garden statue on the other side of the frame. The film's 'nature versus nurture' theme is born in this very shot as we see the vines rise up to secure the figure to its inescapable position in this world, a strong thematic undercurrent that runs crookedly below the film's surface. The shot is given more substances as the film progresses, culminating in the final images of India yielding a scoped rifle as a killer come true. Absent the preventative tempering of her father's waistline tourniquet, India is flushed with a forbidden knowledge brought to her attention by the snake in the grass she never knew existed. And it is there, on the side of an expansive highway, that Park leaves us, alone and with India – the natural and nurtured young killer with no moral compass and her whole life ahead of her.
- C.J. Wheeler (@KoreaOnTheCouch)
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