Sunday, 24 March 2013

Park Chan-wook: Stoking the Flames

Last night, I was lucky enough to catch Park Chan-wook's English language debut, Stoker, on the big screen.

The film is a psychological thriller cum horror focusing on India Stoker, an outcast with an acute sense of hearing and a talent for the piano, and her mother (Nicole Kidman) in the wake of her fathers death and the appearance of her uncle, who she had never heard of before this point. The uncle immediately woos her mother, but India is very weary of this absentee relative impeaching on the family so soon after her beloved fathers untimely death.

Park Chan-wook, mostly known for his Vengeance trilogy, has an incredible sense of visual style, which is the driving force behind this film. With a name like Stoker, the film carries the Gothic baggage of famed Dracula author Bram, but this isn't a typical vampire tale or overtly supernatural in nature at all. The strength of this film is its imagery, and the sense of menace that the symbolism evokes. With a meandering pace and runtime of about 100 minutes, all the elements tie together to make this a cerebral experience, more akin to the likes of Martha Marcy May Marlene or Melancholia than any of Park Chan-wook's more physical films, and this is where audiences will be split. The story is relatively predictable, with nothing shocking to cinephiles, but is solid with its material. The strength here is the film telling you the same story with a new look, and it isn't the emperor's new clothes. This film is truly a visual treat, one for the inquisitive and analytic in the audience (we exist, I know we do!!). Like the Mona Lisa, it is a straight forward concept executed with the skill of an expert with the power to mesmerise.

The beauty of the film lies in its spiders, its shoes, its ribbons, its piano playing, its belts, its basement lights. An emphasis is given to India's superior hearing which, though not supernatural, provides an unreal quality to the film. Every sound is amplified, and there is a nice moment early in the film when India crunches an egg to hide the voices of the housekeepers gossiping. Some of the sound seems false or out of place, but it puts you right in with the character, hearing a noise, intensely examining it, until it is no longer the noise it should be. 

In an age of increasingly intense and convoluted plots, and more and more rapid fire editing and over-saturation of violence, this film takes a step away from that and is very restrained, but never feels boring for it. There will be people who will disagree with this, but it is these people who would expect something more in line with Oldboy than this film that is admittedly more similar to Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.

A lot of foreign directors take a shot with their English language debuts, and an awful lot miss the target. For every Roman Polanski there is a Takashi Shimizu, who just can't gain footing, or for every Lars Von Tier there's Ronny Yu, whose style is lost in translation. For about the last 15 years, Asia has been producing some of the most titillating cinema in the world, and not just on a horror level. It is outstanding that very few of these directors attempt to break the English language barrier, and most of those that do, head back west to greener pastures. Park Chan-wook is something of an oddity in this. He has brought his style across the waters, and has delivered a film that, though not as impressive as his earlier work, is still above and beyond a lot of current original cinema.

Here's to hoping it is the first of many for him!

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