India is suspicious of her family’s new house guest. She has been on her guard since he arrived. All the while, she’s been slowly transforming into a new person. A stronger, more cunning, more powerful person. Since the arrival of the new house guest, she’s been able to hone in on her talents and utilize them to deal with the other things going on in her life. Since the arrival of her new houseguest, someone by the name of Uncle Charlie, she’s been able to transform from a girl to a woman. Park Chan-wook’s Stoker is a curious film, and by far one of the stylish, sexiest thrillers to come in a while. But its uniqueness lies in the way it is, as Director Park mentions in the film’s EPK, “subvert the coming of age film”. Yes, India certainly develops as a character, but certainly not the way one would initially expect. And everything Director Park does reinforces that theme of “coming of age”. But it’s the images, not the dialogue, that hammer these ideas home. Director Park is stoking his own ideas through each frame. And it’s a work of diabolical genius.
There are only, in my experience, a few directors, or, for the sake of argument, auteurs that can use image, theme, and dialogue to reinforce one another and to essentially create a symbiotic relationship, though theoretically, between the three elements. Each one, when used, reinforces the other and makes the other stronger and more artful, even more precise. Every image strengthens the dialogue, every word fuels theme, and each theme intensifies image. What is important here is the potency of all three. Terrence Malick’s beautiful tone poems, from Days of Heaven to The Tree of Life, are perfect examples of this, and other directors, such as Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Chris Marker are able to infuse these elements to create true works of art. I would also include Director Park Chan-wook in this group of directors so in control of their craft they are able to create some stunning pieces using such elements.
Chan-wook is best known for being the creator of the extreme Vengeance Trilogy, comprised of three films related (almost) only by theme: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), the most “European” of the trilogy; Oldboy (2003), inarguably the most famous of the trilogy; and Lady Vengeance (2005), arguably the best of the trilogy. His other notable films include Thirst (2009), a bizarre, vampiric spin on Therese Raquin, and I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), which is exactly what it sounds like. But what these films all have in common is their reliance on image. I cannot be for certain, but perhaps the mark of a true master is their ability not only to image build, but to infuse their images with meaning and context. You can take any still from Lady Vengeance and know that that still belongs to that film, that without the film’s context, it is not nearly as beautiful. However, Chan-wook isn’t so cruel as to create images that aren’t beautiful without the “needed” context: that same still will still be heartbreakingly gorgeous and will make you want to see the film.
A better example might come from Oldboy: there’s a series of extended scenes, maybe it qualifies as a montage, where the protagonist Oh Dae-Su, stuck in his room, or cell rather, eats dumplings. He gets sick of them quickly, as he’s locked in that room for years to come, but those dumplings return later in the film as a memory and as a map. Were it not for their distinctive taste, their greasy texture, Oh Dae-su might have nowhere to run. So, there are essentially two scenes, two montages where the images are so important that they call back one another. Another example, for the sake of understanding image building and context, takes place at the same time where Oh Dae-su is trapped in the room; he watches as the world changes through his television. You could argue that there’s a certain amount of political subtext in the film judging from this sequence, but for now, it merely represents the passage of time. As the world transforms and becomes at once more wondrous than one could imagine and more horrible than one could imagine, Oh Dae-su himself changes in the room. He becomes filled with rage, hunger, and revenge. It’s that which sets the Bergmanesque neo-noir into motion.
Back to Stoker: purposefully, we are given very little information about India and her family. Actually, we’re given almost no exposition at all in the film. Even sequences that seem like they qualify as exposition or explanation aren’t because they technically a) don’t explain much at all and b) don’t really spell things out, at least not in words. Because, unlike, Director Park’s previous efforts, his first foray into English language filmmaking was not reliant on dialogue. Stoker was a way for Director Park to be skilled as he was previously using the Three Symbiotic Elements of Film and drop one and come out with the same effect. You could argue that the images are the exposition, but while that would be correct, things still aren’t exactly spelled out explicitly in the film. Part of its brilliance is its ability to oscillate between the subtle and the overt, to create something that sends chills down your back.
Thus, there is an extreme importance on the image in the film and not as much on dialogue. Every frame fuels the story and the ideas behind the story, especially in terms of its subverted coming of age theme. But Director Park starts us off with words to show that the least important thing is words. The soliloquy that Mia Wasikowska’s India gives in a mildly Malickian way don’t matter the way we initially think they do. Everything she says is eventually conveyed by the camera, without the need for explanation. If anything, the words that start off the film, and that play over a stylish scene of India walking across the street and looking into the grass, serve as a transition for the audience, perhaps a necessary preparation for them. But we don’t need this explanation. Because we will eventually be seeing the film from her eyes. Yes, friends, Stoker could be a brilliant subversion of the coming of age thriller and yet still retain the subjective perspective of that genre’s storytelling. This fact is so important that one could watch the film only listening to the isolated score (brilliantly composed by Clint Mansell) and still understand each frame. And like many of those films, the protagonist wants to introduce themselves, even though, as aforementioned, it’s not inherently essential:
My ears hear what others cannot hear; small faraway things people cannot normally see are visible to me. These senses are the fruits of a lifetime of longing, longing to be rescued, to be completed. Just as the skirt needs the wind to billow, I’m not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father’s belt tied around my mother’s blouse, and shoes which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. Only once you realize this do you become free, and to become adult is to become free.
These lines, said in something slightly above of a whisper, are certainly poetic and they spell out the theme, but they do not actually explain anything. They are no more than a young woman’s description of herself, and one that only scratches the surface. (What these lines do reveal, besides the fact that we won’t need to hear much later in the film, is that the young woman who has finally honed who she is and accepted it, is a narcissist. This is perfectly in league with what these kinds of films can be, but Director Park soon throws that out the window. Narcissism is important.)
Uncle Charlie makes his auspicious debut at the funeral of India’s father, but off in the distance. He will be the one who stokes. But even then, when she knows nothing about him, she seems to know almost everything about him. Shrouded in only silhouette could not only describe how that shot looks, but how Matthew Goode’s Uncle Charlie is, and how India perceives him. He’s not completely in the dark and neither is she. She’s suspicious of him and yet she seems to know what he wants and why he is there. There’s a careful balance between the known and the unknown in this film, as well as the careful balance between adolescence and adulthood.
But adulthood is not all that it seems. None of the major adults in this film are very good and the ones that are get quickly polished off by Uncle Charlie. Adulthood, as true as India said it, may be a kind of freedom, but how one exerts that freedom and how one uses it defines the kind of person that they are. India may have already been struck by fate, as a curious brown spider (what looks like to be a brown recluse spider to me), crawls up her India’s leg towards the beginning of the film as she sits and plays the piano. She is infused with the poison of adulthood.
It isn’t only imagery of spiders that pervades this film. So much of it is reliant on the transition from adolescence to adulthood, so, various symbolic images are piled on in the film. In a Hitchcockian manner (more of which I will get to later), birds frequent the frames of the film. A striking example of this is ostensibly unimportant. India cracks a deviled egg by rolling it around on the table, but we hear the cracks amplified dozens of times so it shatters our eardrums. It’s a sound so subtle that normally no one would notice it, but it becomes of enormous importance when one realizes that the force she’s putting on breaking the egg I similar to the force she puts on trying to mature to womanhood. She rolls it around with apathy; she dislikes the frivolity of her age.
Her suspicion of Uncle Charlie continues, and Director Park creates a fascinating dynamic between the two, constantly at odds but also attuned to one another. While both characters may seem unpredictable to the audience, neither is unpredictable to the other. Both, at heart, know what the other is capable of, though India is only learning what she is capable of. This power play, though, is fairly explicitly shown as height: the stairs in the lavish house she lives in serve as an explicit reminder of who can maintain power the longest in the film. But there’s a desire for the playing field to be level. Although the power does shift throughout the film, it is often shown that one wants to level it: the stare into one another’s faces as they both reach the same height, the stare across the table at one another, and they sit on the same piano bench.
It is this scene which is both the highlight of the film and the best example that India’s maturation process is not only mental but sexual. Yes, it sounds somewhat incestuous, but the connection between India and Uncle Charlie transcends sex. It’s a bizarre, almost telepathic relationship (one that is, thankfully, never fully explained). The scene I am talking about involves India sitting down to play at the piano. Soon, her Uncle Charlie joins her, he who had feigned amateur piano skills for India’s mother, and the two play in harmony with one another. They play a dark, swelling theme, the theme to their connection. The camera is precise, able to capture the big picture of what is occurring, and the minute details of the piano hammers, India closing her eyes in ecstasy, and her shoes. It is, by far, one of the sexiest scenes from film in 2013.
Uncle Charlie is as much of a slick hunter as India, but he’s also a sexual creature. He lures and manipulates India’s mother (Nicole Kidman). As the dance to “Summer Wine” in the dining room, the camera switches back and forth between POV shots and medium shots of the couple dancing. This brief romance though, is to no avail. Soon, Kidman will spit out words worthy of an award: “I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart.” But her mother doesn’t even know the true nature of her daughter.
But her sexual maturity manifests itself in other ways. After an attempted rape on the train tracks by her house (yet another Hitchcockian flourish), she is seen weeping and masturbating in the shower, an exhibition of the pains of “growing up”, but also proof that is clearly indicative of her nature. She is aroused by violence and by killing. Killing, hunting is in her blood. And it proves that the romantic tryst was only an experiment in two ways: an experiment in her own sexuality and an experiment in her ability to kill.
This hunting was abstractly explained in the first lines of the film, but the attention to detail that Director Park puts on this is astounding, as is India’s own attention to detail. She can hear things from a mile away. She can see things and know what they are and what they mean from an equally great distance. In art class, she is seen drawing the fine details of the interior of a flower pot. It is almost as if she can slow her heartbeat down so that she doesn’t scare off prey. She is the ultimate hunter, and her father knew this. At the end, we can see her eye through the scope of a rifle. It’s in her blood.
Its Hitchcockian flourishes are not without reason though. The film is “heavily inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt” but I think the film, written by Wentworth Miller, takes it a step further. It’s an inverted thematic remake. It isn’t merely that there’s a suspicious Uncle Charlie in both films and that the admiration of the young girl upon Uncle Charlie is fraught with sexual tension; both young women mature but do so in vastly different ways. Shadow of a Doubt Is as cynical as Stoker and they both concern the “nuclear family”, but Charlie Newton of Shadow (1943) is one who realizes the world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be early in the film. The events that follow just cement her cynical outlook. IN Shadow, the development is a general progression of one mindset, but she is, in essence, “still a good person”. Similarly, Stoker does, ostensibly, the same thing by having India progress through one real mindset and character and just develop further as the film goes on. But Stoker is an inherently inverted version of this. Charlie of Shadow rejects the evil that incarnated itself as her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton); India embraces the evil that is has always been in her blood, a supernatural connection between she and her Uncle Charlie. Not only has Park Chan-wook subverted the coming of age film, but he has inverted the inspiration for the film. Evil comes full circle.
Park Chan-wook’s Stoker is a bizarre, stylish, and sexy thriller. Upon its release at Sundance, it was met with mixed to positive reviews, many accusing the film of being style over substance. But what may have not been understood at the time (something I hate having to say, because I think it is unfair to regress into “my work isn’t bad, you just don’t get it” mentality) is that the style was the substance. Everything about the film was about appearance: how evil can look so appealing and so entrancing. For, undoubtedly Stoker has some of the most intoxicating cinematography in quite a while. Both India and Uncle Charlie are attractive people, and they are able to do what they do in a slick, effortless way. Director Park is able to convey this through some of the most incredible image building in a film this year, where every frame is critical to understanding the theme of the film. Stoker isn’t just a film that subverts the coming of age film, it’s a film that reveals how attracted we are to evil itself. Evil is indeed appealing. As Nietzsche once said, “Man is the cruelest animal.”