It seems as if Twenty-Thirteen is to be the year of Korea, more specifically it is a year in which more moviegoers than ever will be exposed to the singular style of South Korean cinema: Spike Lee will remake SK gateway film Oldboy, Bong Joon-Ho will release the blockbuster Snowpiercer, etc. This South Korean season premieres with Park Chan Wook’s English language debut, Stoker; a film that, on first appearances, seems ill-suited to his strengths. The set-up is essentially stolen from a soap-opera – A handsome millionaire dies under suspicious circumstances and days later his younger brother moves into his manor, seducing the man’s still grieving wife and daughter – but the execution is as stunning and strange as one might expect from the man, just nowhere near as good.
Stoker is strikingly shot and edited from the very first scene on; Park never allowing a simple set-up or pedestrian transition to grace the screen. With every scene he aims either to transcend or to unsettle the viewer, the experience visceral in the strange way that South Korean films are. So on a shot by shot basis the craft is superb, but this same showiness often gets in the way of his storytelling. Because the camera is never still, because no scene is static, nothing simply unfolds; instead all of the drama is forcibly dragged out into the open kicking and screaming by the director.
Hitchcock, the master of the thriller, took the opposite approach: long shots, still camera and the results there speak for themselves. The results here tells he same story; the one lengthy scene in the film, in which Matthew Goode’s malicious brother and his niece India sit and play the piano, is its most compelling by far, salvaging something from the mess prior to that stage. In fact the film’s sound, both Clint Mansell’s creepy classical score and the audio design of the film as a whole, is excellent: during party scenes we overhear snippets of distant conversations, on multiple occasions the squelches of blood sicken and gunshots shock. Like the visuals the audio here has a real visceral effect on the viewer.
So far the film is probably sounding great, right? And very South Korean? What separates this from Park’s other pictures is not the potency with which he tells the story, but the quality of the story that he is telling. Its hard to tell the quality of his past scripts, there tends to be too many mental distractions in the directing to think on that level, but this one is blatantly weak. The dialogue, very important in a character based movie, is a major misfire. The sporadic bouts of poetic narration are one thing, but the everyday conversation between the characters is lead-lined, heavy with dead weight and little meaning. It’s unclear whether we should blame this on Park’s direction of a second-language or the script by Wentworth Miller; either way the writing here fails to impress and function on both micro and macro levels.
Besides a butchered story – which i understood better when I had only seen the trailer – the writing fails in establishing the central family. India is our protagonist but she isn’t a very empathetic character; I simply didn’t care about her plight and too this day I still support Tony Soprano on some level. She is so complicit in everything that happens to her and yet so closed off from us. Perhaps some of this technical trickery was implemented to put us inside India’s head, replicating her own fractured perspective and her break from reality, but it mostly has the opposite effect. The stories third act shocks don’t hit home because they’re not subverting anything that we were ever invested in.
Though the telling of them is flawed there are some interesting ideas in the movie, ideas that clearly play into Park’s personal interest. The brother is a sexual simulacrum of the dead father: his murder weapon the fathers old belt, a parent’s punishment device and of course one attached to his pants which is meaningful given the perverted side of India’s story, the onset of her sexual maturity. The mysteries built from these though are shallower than those of the setting and era. Based on India’s date of birth this is a present day picture, but its presented – for at least half the time – as a period piece of some sort. Who lives like this? Why was this the choice? Its alienating in the extreme, or would have been if we weren’t already off-planet.
So unless you’re teaching a class on cinematography of other cinema craft I don’t really see any reason to watch Stoker, it doesn’t satisfy on anything but a technical level. Though to be fair I’m not the man’s biggest fanboy either, so perhaps if you loved the likes of Thirst this one will work better for you. South Korean cinema is so exciting because it so easily subverts what we in the west assume are stone-set boundaries, breaks rules we hadn’t even realised existed but this time the wrong things got wrecked and so instead of liberating the story they just wrecked it.