Stoker (2013, Park Chan-Wook): A Stylish Cocktail of Incest and Murder

by Donato Totaro Volume 19, Issue 11 / November 2015 9 minutes (2243 words)

Park Chan-Wook’s first English language film is a strong continuation of the style he had established in a string of uncompromising (and sometimes uncompromisingly brutal) Korean films that usually defied strict genre category: from his breakthrough crime thriller JSA: Joint Security Area, 2000, to his vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2002, Old Boy, 2003, Lady Vengeance, 2005), to his stylized-in-shades-of- white urban vampire take, Thirst, 2009). With Stoker, Park channels his rigorously formal visual style with what North Americans most identify with the thriller genre, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was above all a master controller and arch formalist –to the point where he would say that once the film was played out in his mind, and storyboarded, the actual shooting of the film was a mere mechanical necessity– but in most respects Park has gone beyond Hitchcock in the way he imbues film form, lighting, color, art direction, camera movement and performances, with the expressive sexualized desires, overt and repressed, of his principal characters. In this case they are mother and daughter Evelyn and India Stoker (Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska), both suffering from the recent death of their husband/father Richard (Dermot Mulroney, seen briefly in a few flashbacks); and Evelyn’s brother and Uncle to India, Charles Stoker (Matthew Goode, in the Uncle Charlie role from Shadow of a Doubt). Evelyn has not seen Charles in years, and India has never met her uncle. His appearance for the funeral of his brother causes a seismic rip in an already tense and troubling mother-daughter relationship.

India’s POV

Spider crawl

Park borrows from Hitchcock not only superficially with plot and character elements, from Shadow of a Doubt (1943) for example, but a sense of the horror co-existing in the everyday. But the everyday here is given sexually provocative coding. For example, before we formally meet Charlie the character, director Park shows us a close-up of a spider walking along the hard wood floors of the Stoker estate toward India playing at the piano. The image of the approaching spider stands in for the encroaching evil of Uncle Charlie, as well as symbolizing Charlie’s sexualized predatory nature (the spider is then seen making its way up India’s legs, the shot cutting before it moves farther up her leg). India is continually poking and puncturing things: in the credit scene she bursts a blister on her finger, in another early scene she crushes the shell of a hardboiled egg and rolls it along the table top. These ‘punctures’ are both reflections of her pent up aggression and symbols of her loss of sexual innocence (literally, loss of her virginity). Park also channels Hitchcock’s favorite device of the point of view cut, where the viewer is positioned precisely where the looker is, seeing what they are seeing. Like the extreme long shot of Charlie at the funeral who only India sees (still above). Park also imbues his narration with a Hitchockian sense of voyeurism, as in the post funeral scene where India meets her Uncle Charlie. Evelyn formally introduces Uncle Charlie to India, but in a subtle gesture, India is framed from behind seeing Charlie moments before her mother introduces her to India, and us. The secretive nature of the camera movement framing India on the edge of the frame before slipping out of it gives the moment a heightened sexual and voyeuristic feel. As does the kissing scene between Charlie and Evelyn, which Charlie performs knowing that India is watching.

India’s subtle gaze at Uncle Charlie

Stoker is an example that, if you don’t necessarily have a story with much depth or meaning, couching it in a precise style can turn a weakness into a strength. The film is ostensibly a coming of age story for young India, whose father dies tragically on the eve of her 18th birthday (murdered by his brother Charlie, we later learn). At the father’s funeral she discovers she has an uncle on her Dad’s side, a suave, Talented Mr. Ripley like Uncle Charlie (bearing more than a nod to Hitchcock’s same Uncle Charlie from Shadow of a Doubt). Charlie appears to her at the funeral, as a nebulous vision standing afar on a hilltop, reminiscent of Mrs. Giddens’ (Deborah Kerr in a performance of high neurosis which may have influenced Kidman in this role) first sighting of the ghostly Mr. Quint atop the castle tower in The Innocents (1961). Charlie ‘draws’ out India’s sexuality, and perhaps her Oedipal desire, but at the same time as she matures sexually, she is drawn to Charlie’s darker side; in fact, one of the film’s not-too-subtle associations, common in horror films, links India’s sexual desire with her violent urges. In a flashback we see her on one of her regular hunting excursions with her father, who seems to have channeled her daughter’s violent side into bird hunting, suggested in his phrase (recounted by India) sometimes doing one bad thing (hunting birds) will stop you from doing something worse (murder). This association of bloodlust with sex lust comes to the fore in the montage that cuts between Charlie’s murder of a high school boy who had attempted to rape India, and India in the shower, masturbating while remembering the aborted rape/murder. The climax cuts from Charlie snapping the boy’s neck with Richard’s belt, to a close-up of a contended India right after orgasm; the scene plays like Park’s perverse take on Psycho’s infamous shower scene. Charlie’s intuition about India’s violent nature comes true when she becomes complicit in Charlie’s murder spree, and eventually continues his path after killing her father’s killer. The lurid connections to the horror genre are made in more subtle ways too, like the allusion to Ringu (1998, The Ring, 2002) in the doubled image of India combing her mother’s hair in the vanity mirror (the featured image at top).

This mirror scene contains one of the most sumptuously exquisite edits I’ve seen in years, where Park and editor De Toth transition from a close-up of Evelyn’s hair as India runs a comb through the hair, to the similarly colored and textured tree foliage from India’s remembered flashback to a hunting excursion with her father. The transition is so subtle and fine that I could not tell where the actual edit was, so I imagine the edit was achieved through a digital effect. The edit may very well be sourced (as a direct homage or inspiration) from a similar tricky transition in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1954), when the camera pans past a wooded area, tilts down along a stream of water as it makes its way through wet, glistening rocks on the side of a hill, continues to track along a rocky terrain, that camouflages a dissolve on a graphic match to the swirling, manicured tapestry of a Japanese Zen garden.

From Evelyn’s Hair

To a flashback of nature

A seemingly innocent plot moment where Charlie asks India to deposit ice cream into the freezer, holds thematic interest. The basement which houses the singular freezer seems like it belongs at the bottom of the house in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)! Only India is every seen going there, to either place ice cream in or retrieve it, and her walk to it feels like a worrisome journey along a dark, dank, decrepit hallway: an architectural version of the dark forest in Little Red Riding Hood. As noted, it is important that it is Uncle Charlie who first asks her to go place the ice cream in the freezer, and director Park and DP Chung paint the scene with an exquisite gesture that ties this walk along a dark corridor to Uncle Charlie, and by extension a feeling of sexual coming of age. As India begins to swing the overhead lamp the (Psycho-esque) affect of the swinging light is magically transported across two cuts in a disparate space, first to a close-up of Evelyn, and then of Charlie, who are both standing in the kitchen upstairs, as they smile at each other. It is an impossible physical action that functions symbolically to connect the three characters in a sexualized triangle. To add to this, as India walks in the dark corridor the soundtrack plays hushed, almost sexualized voices mixed with the sound of the creaking light fixture. Her walk along the basement hallway stands in contrast to the opening credit scene where her voiced-over expression of her free-forming identity –“Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be”– is naturalized by being set in the splendid natural exteriors of their surrounding home: trees, flowers, foliage. A splendor which harbors a dark side when we realize at the end of the film that the scene is actually a flash forward to India’s first post-Charlie kill. In another nod to _Psycho, India’s father practiced taxidermy, to paraphrase Evelyn, he used to “stuff every single thing India killed,” the line itself as spoken by Evelyn, underscored by a slow track-in to Charlie, has a sexual undertone.

Stylistically, Park uses a constantly moving camera, panning or tracking to characters, around characters, or (less so) from one character to another, but the movements, often without specific narrative point, such as if following a character from one place to another, gains a seductive quality. Given the nature of the story, which is largely about a male character whose true motivations, while seemingly sexual in nature, are never made clear, the camera movements attain an ominous, portentous quality. At their worse, which is thankfully not often, they feel needless in their attention calling, like the set of dolly shots that move toward and away from the piano while India and Charlie play a duet that is performed as if it were a sexual act. On top of the sinewy camera movements (the cinematography is by Chung-hoon Chung) often hand-held, the production design (by Thérèse De Perez), art direction (by Wing Lee), set decoration (by Leslie Morales) performances and editing (by Nicolas De Toth) are all impressive. The ostentatious rural home is a character unto itself. Each room has its own visual and historical style, making the move from room to another feel loaded with import. For example, Evelyn’s room is given an intimate Victorian woodsy hue, filled with plants which seem to contrast her self-absorbed nature. Some rooms are all red, others all green.

Evelyn’s uncharacteristically warm space

Green space

The film is wildly predictable in its broad strokes –we know Charlie is up to no good, we know mother Evelyn Stoker (Kidman) is a neurotic mess; and we know daughter India is going through a transitional phase in her life, evidenced in the way in the opening scenes she continually changes her wardrobe, her dresses, the way she fetishizes her string of different age-sized black and white Brownie shoes, the slowly moving spider that we see in several close-ups making its way across her shoe or ankle, up her leg, etc.). When Auntie Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver) comes snooping her well meaning nose in their affairs, we know she won’t be alive for long. At the 40 minute mark India already figures out that her Uncle is a murderer, after finding the body of a victim, Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville), in the freezer. And yet this revelation does not discourage her from gravitating toward Charlie, who led her toward the discovery of the corpse in the freezer in the first place, sensing that she too has a dark streak, which becomes more apparent as the film progresses and India becomes more embroiled in the multiple murders. Park does not hold back on plot details, as another longer flashback to Charlie’s childhood reveals that Charlie murdered a younger third brother, Jonathan, by burying him alive, out of jealousy for Richard’s attention. Charlie was institutionalized for his criminal act. The flashback moves ahead many years to Charlie’s discharge, and his brutal murder of Richard when he learns of Richard’s plan to keep him far away from India, for fear of her safety. Hurt by being once again shunned by a brother he no doubt loves in his own twisted, possessive way (another nod to Psycho), Charlie ambushes Richard in the front seat of his car, with repeated blows with a rock to his head.

The circular conclusion

As Charlie and India become more intimate, Evelyn feels emotionally shunned, as was Charlie. Evelyn’s suppressed hatred for her daughter bleeds out as she attempts, vainly, to win back Charlie’s attention. In the film’s climax, India’s killer instinct (and shooting skills) save her mother from Charlie’s death clutch. The film defies classical notions of happy or sad ending, leaving us instead with a family of shattered and frayed emotions, and twisted sexual desires that, mixed with mental instability, can only be manifested through violence. The finale returns us unsuspectingly to the opening images of India standing in an open field, moments after her killing spree continues with the brutal murder of the town sheriff. Stoker is a film that is precisely gripping in its precision execution of shot placement and aspects of mise en scene that express taboo incestuous sexual desire among attractive people, in attractive spaces, all captured in an attractive formal trap set by Park Chan-Wook and his expert team of collaborators; a trap that for the willing viewer is a pleasurable place to be, at least for 98 fictive minutes.

Stoker (2013, Park Chan-Wook): A Stylish Cocktail of Incest and Murder

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 19, Issue 11 / November 2015 Film Reviews   alfred hitchcock   korean cinema   nicole kidman   park chan-wook