Director Park Chan-wook called Stoker, his first English-language movie, a turning point in his career. Through his on-set translator, he explained last night at a Museum of the Moving Image Q&A that he felt a chapter coming to an end as he finished work on Thirst, his excellent vampire movie from 2009. When reading the script for Stoker—supplied, trivia alert, by former Prison Break star Wentworth Miller—he “heard” a quiet film, one where the small creaks in floorboards would stand out. Stoker is and isn’t that quiet movie: it’s a bit like Brian De Palma riffing on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (a Hitch classic that never got the unofficial De Palma remake treatment during his 70s/80s run), fusing the former’s lunatic bravado—some of Park’s shots have laugh-out-loud audacity—with the latter’s intense control. He twiddles the knobs further, turning up (by virtue of this being 2013) Hitchcock’s perversity and turning down De Palma’s feverish homage. Neither director’s name came up in the Q&A, and it didn’t seem like a dodge; Stoker fits neatly into Park’s filmography.
Nevertheless, Shadow‘s shadow is unmistakable when Matthew Goode turns up as Uncle Charlie, previously unseen relative of teenage India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), left alone with her icy mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) following the death of her father (and Charlie’s brother) in a freak accident. While Hitchcock’s innocent young girl loved her Uncle Charlie and only gradually came to believe that he could be a fugitive from justice, the more morose India immediately regards her uncle’s presence with suspicion. Like Hitchcock, Park uses his stars’ personas perfectly: Wasikowska brings her now-familiar look of quiet aggrievement (plus her goth-like Tim Burton connection), Kidman her tortured chill, and Goode his even-keeled poshness. The twists are just as twisted as the filmmaker’s past work, but Stoker is also a little more fun, less downcast, than many of Park’s other films.
I don’t expect this will be a common reaction, given how many people love Old Boy and how much they love it. I’ve felt out of place for considering that film a touch schematic, appreciating its style and extremities more than its actual characters—or feelings, on either side of the camera. But when Park answered a question about his extensive use of cross-cutting in Stoker by comparing a film’s director’s job to a mathematician’s or an architect’s made me better understand my like-not-love for his most famous work. It also shed light on why a few dinner table scenes in the new movie felt so odd (if fascinatingly so): instead of, as elsewhere in the movie, cross-cutting between several characters and/or time periods, he treats a few single-location sequences that same way, cutting between angles so disparate they suggest other scenes entirely.
This criss-crossing also turns up in the movie’s clever sound design, as dialogue and sound effects often overlaps across cuts, emphasizing India’s ability to overhear what’s going on around her—finding menace in what might seem like relative quiet, not unlike Thirst, another quiet-ish movie with horrific and operatic touches (and memorable foley work emphasizing its squishiness).
I also saw a Q&A session for Thirst, and while this one was more concise, it did reinforce the worst aspects of the format—the part where things are inevitably turned over to the audience. That segment was mercifully brief (and, with the exception of that guy who just had to know if a masturbation scene was in the script, far from the worst of its kind), but at times it still seemed designed to test a smart and interesting filmmaker: semi-tortured questions about the symbolism of spiders in the movie turned into 10-minute episodes through a translator—and through Park’s thoughtfulness, because he seems to have the crucial Q&A skill of turning middling questions into substantial responses. But in Stoker itself, the translation of his other skills is crisp and clear.