Stoker (2013)

2015 #162
Park Chan-wook | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Director Chan-wook “Oldboy” Park makes his English-language debut with this modern-Gothic thriller from the pen of Wentworth “yes, the guy from Prison Break” Miller.

When well-to-do architect Richard Stoker dies on his daughter’s 18th birthday, he leaves said insular daughter India (Mia “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland” Wasikowska) stuck in their Tennessee mansion with her unbeloved mother (Nicole “the face behind the nose” Kidman). At the wake, both are surprised by the arrival of Charlie (Matthew “Ozymandias” Goode), Richard’s brother who Evelyn has never met and India has never even heard of. Nonetheless, he’s all charm and good manners, though when he moves into their home he begins to build up a slightly creepy relationship with Evelyn, and essentially stalks India. The Stokers’ housekeeper clearly knowns something about him, but then she disappears; and Richard and Charles’ Aunt Gwendolyn turns up wanting a word with Evelyn. Just what is going on with Uncle Charlie that everyone apart from India seems to know about?

And I’ve already said too much, maybe. Stoker isn’t all about its mystery and its twists — it’s at least as much about its carefully constructed Gothic mood; but part of that is the mystery, so, y’know. Indeed, it’s so moody and atmospheric that it seems to turn some viewers off. It’s certainly not thrill-a-minute, and it has a very particular pace and tone. I’m going to keep coming back to the word Gothic, because that really is the best word for it; whether that should be “modern Gothic” or “neo-Gothic” or “Southern Gothic” or what, I don’t know, but it’s definitely Gothic — with little more than cosmetic changes, I’m sure the story could be shunted back to a crumbling pile in 19th Century England. So precise is the mood of this secluded household, it’s kind of weird when, a little while in, we get to see India’s place of education: a typical US high school. In another film I might call this sudden change of locale a misstep, a breaker of tone, but in the world Park has created it just feels like a point of contrast.

Visually, Stoker is peerless. It doesn’t scream “beauty” at you, but the shot composition, Chung-hoon Chung’s photography, and Nicolas De Toth’s editing are all exceptional. The sound design is incredible too, with judicious use of ultra-heightened effects to imitate India’s skill for hearing small things others maybe miss. Finally, the music is perfection. A piano duet composed by Philip Glass is one of the film’s most memorable sequences, but Clint Mansell offers a doom-laden score, of a piece with his work on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain (both of which I think I’ve written of my admiration for sometime previously), and there are some choice songs too: I’d never heard Summer Wine by Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood before, but it fits the film like a glove, as well as being fantastic in its own right; and Emily Wells’ Becomes the Color slugs in with a kind of perfect dissonance to the musical style to that point. A comment on iCheckMovies used the word “sumptuous” for all of this, and that seems apt.

I have a feeling “not for everyone” may be one of the most overused phrases on this blog, but, if so, I think that’s for good reason: some of the best movies are “not for everyone”. We may not agree on what those movies are, but that’s kind of the point: they fit our own individual tastes, not “everyone’s”. Stoker undoubtedly doesn’t have easy mass appeal — it’s got a 6.9 on IMDb — and even some people open to its charms deem it to only be style over substance. I don’t think it’s wholly lacking in the latter, though if you’re looking for some Significance then I don’t know if you’ll find it — it’s an artistically-made Gothic thriller, not a soul-bearing artistic portrait of humanity. And as for the style… well, I’ve already talked about that. Whether you can have “style” for style’s sake, or whether it needs to be in aid of something, is a debate for another day. Here, it is in aid of something: amping up the Gothicism of the inherently Gothic story, which in other hands could have just became any-old present-day-set family thriller.

Describing something as “an acquired taste” might well be another phase I’ve used often, especially as it’s essentially a synonym for “not for everyone”. Nonetheless, that’s what I’ll go for here. Stoker will most decidedly not appeal to all palates, but for the right viewer, it’s a dark, moody, sensuous, Gothic delight.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Stoker is on Film4 tomorrow, Friday 30th, at 9pm.

It placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Oldboy (2003)

aka Oldeuboi

2014 #123
Chanwook Park | 115 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | South Korea / Korean | 18 / R

OldboyPerpetual drunkard, but also loving husband and father, Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) is snatched off the street and imprisoned in a shabby bedsit without explanation. He learns that his wife has been murdered and he’s being blamed. His daughter lives, but he doesn’t know where. Then, 15 years later, and equally inexplicably, he’s released. He befriends a sushi chef, Mi-do (Hye-jung Gang), before being contacted by Woo-jin (Ji-tae Yoo) who claims to have been his captor. Dae-su is given just five days to discover why he was locked up. If he succeeds, Woo-jin will kill himself; if he fails, he will kill Mi-do. Dae-su’s investigations lead him to dark secrets, shocking revelations, and violent retribution.

It’s hard to summarise the effect of Oldboy without just watching it. As its premise hopefully conveys, it’s not wholly set in a world you can believe as our own, but nor is it an outrageous fantasy — maybe someone somewhere does run a kind of boarding house for illegal imprisonment? Stranger things have happened. It’s a film predicated on mysteries, but one that doesn’t rely on remaining mysterious — there are answers for every question, you just have to follow the strange path it leads you on and wait for the answers. Try not to get spoilered. (That said, it does have a (deliberately) ambiguous final end, but at least by then it’s answered the questions it started out with.)

Oh Dae-su and Mi-doChoi is excellent in the lead role, deserving of all the praise he’s garnered. It’s a highly unusual role with a lot of different and sometimes conflicting facets, but he pulls it all off with aplomb. He maintains a sense of mystery and unknowableness throughout, whilst also being a plausible human being in an implausible situation. As his adversary, Yoo makes for an excellent villain: calm, businesslike, always with the upper hand. The final confrontation is a scene to be savoured, calling to mind everything from James Bond to David Fincher (for me, at least) in terms of the villain’s slick lair and the twisted events that unfold in it.

Director Chanwook Park has a sure handle on proceedings, guiding the viewer through a sometimes tricky narrative. There’s also a distinct visual flair, exhibited not least in the infamous corridor/hammer fight sequence. Shot in a single-take from a vantage point that emulates side-scrolling computer games, it’s justly famed. The film as a whole is frequently gorgeously shot by DP Jung Jung-hoon, though at times it’s hard to tell if the DVD encode was obscuring some visual majesty or if it was just the film’s unusual look. May be one to get on Blu-ray, then.

Having garned acclaim in the West, it was inevitable we’d see a Hollywood remake of Oldboy. Bizarrely, Steven Spielberg and Will Smith were attached for a while, but it ended up coming to fruition in 2013 under the guidance of Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin. It seemed to pass by almost unnoticed. Without having seen it (yet), it’s a little difficult to understand how a remake might work. Some people would say that about all remakes, but personally I don’t think it’s an automatically worthless or artistically unjustified process to engage in. Woo-jinIn Oldboy’s case, however, so much of what makes it special, unique and exceptional lies in the direction. So do you copy that wholesale? If you do, what’s the point — just watch the original. But if you don’t, what’s the point — you’re losing a large chunk of what’s special. I guess this is why the US version didn’t go down so well — whichever path it took, it was on a hiding to nothing. I look forward to seeing it to judge for myself.

Oldboy — original flavour — is kinda crazy, kinda disturbed, but kinda brilliant for it. It’s exactly the sort of thing that would never, ever pass “what would make a good film?” focus grouping, for so many reasons, and yet the result is quite incredible.

5 out of 5

Oldboy placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.