‘Oldboy’ director casts dark shadow on Hollywood

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

“Stoker,” a film so rich and chocolatey with nuance and innuendo you could eat it with a spoon, is, amazingly, directed by a filmmaker who doesn’t speak English. British director Mike Leigh once said he would feel “extremely uncomfortable” working on a set over which he doesn’t have “100 percent linguistic command,” but “Stoker” director Park Chan Wook of South Korea hasn’t let language (or the lack of it) deter him from creating a film in English that echoes his Korean movies — which feature some of the most memorable and disturbing visual tableaux in recent cinema history.

Park’s landmark work is “Oldboy,” the ultraviolent revenge noir that brought him international acclaim and the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in 2003 — and that film had been all about detail rather than dialogue.

“Language is an asset to many directors,” Park tells The Japan Times. “But for me, I find that filmmaking itself has, and operates in, its own language. It’s like a unique animal.”

Park makes his Hollywood debut with “Stoker,” working from a script by “Prison Break” star Wentworth Miller.

“I didn’t know Wentworth had written that script,” says Park. “I of course knew his name, because ‘Prison Break’ is extremely popular in South Korea and he came over on a promotional tour. I didn’t go to his press conference but someone told me that Wentworth cited my films as one of the best things he liked about Korea. Of course, I was flattered. And then when I learned that he’d actually authored ‘Stoker,’ I felt it was like fate or destiny had stepped in.”

The film is about a dysfunctional family that skids out of control. When 18-year-old India’s father dies in a car accident, her estranged uncle, Charlie, comes to live with her and her emotionally imbalanced mother, but his motives seem far from pure. Let’s just say that this is no morality tale.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t have associated such a story with a young man like Wentworth. In fact, I had been convinced that a woman had written it. Young men usually write something more extroverted and bursting with adrenaline, if you know what I mean. But ‘Stoker’ offered an entirely different experience.

“On the other hand, I talked to Wentworth later and discovered that he was a Princeton graduate and that his father is a professor there, so I thought, ‘Ah, yes, so that’s why.’ The story is so cerebral and at the same time, so observant of peoples’ behavior and emotions.”

“Stoker” can be described as a very feminine film, or at least one fueled by feminine sensibilities. Accordingly, women’s sexuality is a big theme here, while the testosterone factor seemingly fades into the wallpaper of the Stoker family’s resplendent stone mansion.

“Consider the only effective male in the movie, Uncle Charlie,” says Park, referring to the character played with state-of-the-art creepiness by Matthew Goode. “He’s handsome and seductive and all that, but he’s also curiously devoid of sexuality. We wanted to make him that way: I discussed Charlie’s character with Matthew Goode over the phone before we met and he suggested fashioning Charlie into a man who was incredibly sexy but who himself was basically uninterested in sex. Quite probably, Charlie has never been with a woman in his life. It’s possible that he only learned how to talk to them through reading books and watching movies. At the same time, he’s a natural born charmer. When it comes to women, he displays an uncanny knowledge of the right moves, the right things to say and the right buttons to push. He is a relentless manipulator.”

One of the film’s most pivotal moments (and at the top of Park’s list of favorite scenes) is when Charlie and India (Mia Wasikowska) play the piano together. At first, India is reluctant and unresponsive. Then gradually she warms to Charlie’s presence, and as their music reaches a frenzied crescendo, India launches into a state of physical ecstasy. When it’s over, India — heaving with pleasure — turns around to say something and finds that Charlie is gone and the spot on the piano bench where he had sat next to her looks eerily empty.

“That’s the kind of man Charlie is,” says Park. “He wants to teach her, he wants to influence her. But he doesn’t really bother to stick around to see the result.”

With India’s clueless and ineffectual mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), Charlie is a bit more cold and distant, though he takes pains to hide it. In many ways, Evie’s position in the Stoker household is the most disadvantaged, even pathetic.

Park says he sympathizes with Evie: “I think that Evie had some happiness at the very beginning of her marriage, before India was born. In one scene, she recalls when her husband had cared enough about her to cook for her. But then India came along and things changed. All of her husband’s attention went to their daughter, and as soon as India could walk, her father took her out on hunting expeditions, just the two of them. In doing so, I think the father was protecting India, making sure that Charlie’s genes weren’t passed on to her. He was so wrapped up in that mission he ceased to take notice of his wife. And her resentment just festered over the years.”

Since its premier at January’s Sundance Film Festival, “Stoker” has won praise from critics around the world, most notably for Park’s strong visual sense and the performances of his cast. The director himself says that he is content with how the film turned out, “because I was in a privileged position of creating and then observing all that went on in the Stoker family. I wanted the overall ambience to be mysterious and enigmatic, with many layers of impressions. The Stokers are fascinating, and though it’s impossible to like them, you just want to keep watching them. That’s the sort of thing I was working to get.”

For a chance to win one of three “Stoker” tickets to use at your choice of theaters around Japan, visit jtimes.jp/film. The deadline is June 4.