The films of Korean auteur Park Chan-wook all have elements in common: They're exquisitely photographed and the attention to detail is immaculate; they're dark and make the viewer feel awkward and icky as they race toward an often-unsavory conclusion.
And, until now, they've all been in Korean. But Park, best known for his Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance and the best of them, Oldboy) has finally crossed the sea and made Stoker, his first English-language film. Still, the director tells CityBeat via a translator, even though it's in a tongue that's foreign to the man who helmed the film, it's in line with the rest of his canon.
"I would hope that it would be quite easy to understand why I chose Stoker for my first English film," he says. "It doesn't veer away from the kind of films that I've been making up until now, despite the fact that it is filmed in a different country with different people and a different language."
Making the switch from one language and one culture to another is a challenge for any filmmaker, and not all of them are up to the task—Park's countryman, Kim Jee-woon, who recently helmed the Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand, is evidence of that. But Stoker is entirely identifiable as a Park Chan-wook film.
This made me curious: Since the camera work and the moods are so distinct, does it truly matter who's in the frame? Or are his actors interchangeable?
It absolutely matters, Park says.
"I am a filmmaker who tends to shoot his film around who the actors are," he says. "Their age, their outward appearance and their style of performance all inform my filmmaking."
Park plans out his films relentlessly, not unlike Alfred Hitchcock, but I never knew that he doesn't storyboard a movie until after it's cast.
"Even the storyboard process is informed by whom the actors are. Different actors would inform camera movement, what sizes of shots I would have used and the editing process and the timing of the cut for every shot. Different actors would have changed the film entirely."
Stoker—opening Friday, March 15, at Hillcrest Cinemas—is a dark and brooding movie that stars Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker, a dark and brooding girl who's mourning the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney), who died in a mysterious car crash on her 18th birthday. India's never been close with her mother (Nicole Kidman), and things get even worse when her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up at her father's funeral.
See, India never even knew that she had an uncle, and she's not at all happy to learn that he'll be staying with them for a while. Charlie's a very attractive guy, but he's also totally creepy, and soon India's wondering if what he wants from her mother, or her, or both of them, is something more than quality family time. Charlie has an agenda—of that, there is no doubt—and at some point, that agenda will lead to violence, but we're left to ponder the how and the why.
It's questionable whether there's any real depth to Stoker or whether it's a talented filmmaker relying on a gimmick that can be found in the film's title and the fact that Park's last feature was the vampire movie Thirst. We wonder what's behind Charlie's rakish charm, and it wouldn't surprise us if he were an undead blood-sucker. Suffice to say that he brings bad news with him, which India must face up to as she learns that she has far more in common with her uncle than she might have ever expected or hoped for.
The movie looks terrific, and it contains moments of severe dread, but there are times when I felt like the emotional payoff was lacking. Or maybe it was simply lost in translation.