"Stoker" will serve as many moviegoers' first introduction to the operatic cinema of Park Chan-Wook, but for cinephiles, the Korean auteur has been a familiar name for over a decade. International appeal was built into the political drama of his breakout film "Joint Security Area," while "Oldboy" -- the centerpiece of his famed Vengeance Trilogy -- received the Grand Prix award from Quentin Tarantino's jury at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, a seal of approval that effectively introduced Park to a global audience. After 2009, when Park's ecstatically twisted vampire melodrama "Thirst" became the first Korean film to be jointly produced by Hollywood, it seemed inevitable that the filmmaker would come to America and continue his international outreach, and "Stoker" makes good on that promise in the most glorious of ways.
Hurdling over the language-barrier without breaking a sweat, "Stoker" is a Park Chan-Wook film to the bone. A giddily perverse coming-of-age story, "Stoker" introduces us to a teenage girl named India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), who becomes the center of a nature vs. nurture battle royale when her long-lost Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up in the wake of her father's untimely death. As Uncle Charlie starts to move in on India's volatile mother (Nicole Kidman), and other family members begin to disappear, India is forced to decide how much of a Stoker she really is. Naturally, this process involves sniper rifles and sex-fueled Philip Glass pieces. A woozy, gothic saga that channels Hitchcock and De Palma but is unmistakably the work of Park Chan-Wook, "Stoker" is a rich and disturbingly relatable family drama, and those willing to follow the director into the darkness will likely look back at this as one of the year's best films.
I recently sat down with Park Chan-Wook (and his translator) to discuss his directing technique, the complex character of India Stoker, and why I'm such a terrible interviewer.
David Ehrlich: While the Stoker family is very eccentric, to put it mildly, india’s struggle between nature and nurture will be very relatable to a lot of people. In some respects, do you think the film is really an exaggerated portrait of all families?
Park Chan-Wook: You have articulated my thoughts so well that the only thing I could say is “yes” (laughs). People might look at the film and say “Well, there aren’t people like that.” Sure, there are exaggerations, but it’s all metaphors, isn’t it, so as to draw a portrait of us all, and especially a portrait of those teenage girls.
DE: We all have uncles I suppose (awkwardly laughs at self). But to that point about teenage girls, your films make you seem very comfortable with both male and female protagonists. How does gender inform the way that you approach a story? Was India’s womanhood really important to the way you envisioned the film?
Park Chan-Wook: Well, when I was younger, years ago, I just didn’t know how to depict a female character, or how to create one. And because of that, I had a vague sense of fear about creating and depicting such characters. And even after having created one, I would always feel that my own creation is somehow unnatural. But perhaps it has to do with the continuing marriage that I have with my wife that has informed my interest and my understanding of women, and more and more I have given more significance to the female characters in my films. And after my daughter was born and as a father having seen her growth, having watched her, it culminated in the form of “I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK,” and “Stoker.”
DE: Well, a concern for the social conditions of women has certainly been one of the defining elements in your recent streak of films, which is unusual for a male director ... it almost makes me think of you as a modern Kenji Mizoguchi, albeit it in a deeply twisted way. (Park and DE both chuckle at this rather ridiculous and completely unproductive statement).Your films play with the idea of confinement, and even in such small spaces, all of these characters are so defined by their environments. I think of that great shot in the dining room where the camera dollies back, and you think you’re going to see India on the right side of the frame by the door, but then she appears in the background outside of the windows behind the curtains, and I was just curious how you approach composition and framing as a means of expressing your characters, and also because so much of the film is about hunting -- the hunt between Uncle Charlie and India –- if the viewer, because of how you direct their eyes, is intended to become the third hunter?
Park Chan-Wook: You’re not a great interviewer. You’re a great film critic, and I say this because, you know…
DE: (laughs) I was afraid of that.
Park Chan-Wook: In your question, there are all the answers…
DE: (laughs) It's terrible...
Park Chan-Wook: … So I cannot help but only say “Yes, you’re right.” But the track-back dolly shot that you’re talking about, where India is not in the place where the audience expects her to be ... I’m grateful that you pointed out this scene, because for me it’s a very important scene. It’s not a matter of “Is it a good scene or a bad scene?” It’s the best example of how I make my films, my process, and I’m always looking for there to be an audience who will be able to savor what I did with the scene. And now I’m seeing one in the flesh, and I’m very grateful.
DE: (laughs) Well, I suppose I have some more direct questions as well. How do you give notes to Philip Glass? The legendary composer provides a piece that we see performed in the film ... It’s a beautiful composition, but it’s also the centerpiece of a scene that’s pivotal to the narrative. And, as a filmmaker, I understand that everything has to ultimately reflect your vision, but how do you give notes to someone like that?
Park Chan-Wook: I had that exact conundrum: How do you give notes to a master like that? But, as you also so rightly point out, I am the director, and I have to get the music, get the piano piece that I want, because it’s part of the scene. And I would, time and time again, ask him to add something, change something, or take away something, and I was making all of these requests. But all the while -- as somebody coming from an Asian background, especially Korea where there is a strong tradition of respecting your elders -- it’s such a part of me that it was all the more difficult, so I had to repress all of the feelings, all of the conundrum, all of the dilemma, and had to keep asking for, you know, changes. But the resulting work is phenomenal. And, at the end, I was able to say to Philip “I’m really sorry, but it’s really been quite difficult for me to give all of these notes to you.” But I was grateful to Philip for saying that “You know, the more the specific request from a director, it helps the composer.” And, I was amazed how Philip would never get angry, never feel bothered by any of these requests, and he was very quick with his work as well. I knew that Philip is a prolific composer in terms of the volume of great work that he outputs. To this day, I always appreciate so much the generosity that Philip showed me, and also the never-ending well of talent that he is.
[The publicist enters the room to inform us that there is time for one more question]
DE: OK, last question? It seems as though India is ultimately sort of freed by accepting her darkness. I think that’s true of a lot of the characters in your films. I think of Lady Vengeance, where she finally organizes this plan, and only then is she able to sort of be pure and freed from it. Do you think that your characters suffer most when they try to pretend that darkness doesn’t exist inside of them?
Park Chan-Wook: India, she is slightly different, in terms of the manifestation of this point. And, this is because India is a character who doesn’t, at least on the surface, who doesn’t seem to have any dilemma, and that’s because it’s hidden behind her inexpressive face. You can’t see what’s going on inside her emotionally. So, this journey that she’s on towards evil seems like a natural one, and the way she’s drawn to evil seems to be very much a natural one. And that is what it means when it says that, in manifestation of your point, she’s slightly different from my other characters. Having said that, there are definitely commonalities between India and all of my other characters. And these commonalities will improve on the second viewing -- when you see the film with this in mind, this will become clearer. And, what it is is that there definitely exists a conflict inside her, there’s definitely internal conflict. But, when she says “This is not my will, this is in my blood, my blood which is in my father, it’s through Uncle Charlie, I cannot resist, I cannot fight, because it’s what I am,” maybe it is a way of justifying herself. (SPOILER ALERT) So, right at the end of the film, when there seems to be no stopping her evil, she’s not hesitant about it, she seems to be very comfortable with herself there. But, this is not because she’s some psychopath who has no notion of right and wrong or good and evil. It’s because she’s succeeded in justifying herself.
DE: Thank you very much for your time, this was a pleasure.
Park Chan-Wook: Did you go to film school?
DE: Yeah. I’m actually in graduate school for directing now.
Park Chan-Wook & Translator in unison: Oooohhhhhhhhhh...
"Stoker" opens in limited release today. It will roll out across the country over the next few weeks. It is tremendous.