FRUSTRATING FILMOGRAPHIES #7
park chan-wook's STOKER
This is an experiment dedicated to great directors. Great directors...who've transgressed. Disappointed. Befuddled. But not to the point of being written off entirely. In the course of long careers these filmmakers have made the occasional slip, and the intent behind this ongoing column will be to try and figure out what their motivation might have been in choosing projects that proved questionable, wrongheaded or outright embarrassing. The purpose of this experiment is not to deride, but to understand.
The subject: Park Chan-wook
The movie: Stoker
I'm not sure if it's been addressed on the Pink Smoke before, but for those who don't know I had a kidney transplant a few years back. Given this life-changing event, combined with my unhealthy fascination with cinema, I have a newfound fondness for kidney-related films and the directors responsible for them. So Park Chan-wook will always have a special place in my heart as he may be the only filmmaker to incorporate kidney disease and kidney transplantation into not one but two of his films: in Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance one of the characters tries to get his sister a kidney off the black market; in Lady Vengeance, the main character donates one of her kidneys out of the kindness of her heart. Kidney disease is often overlooked in the world of cinema in favor of typical issues like heart disease and other terminal illnesses that Park Chan-wook has kind of become the unofficial voice for kidney disease in modern film. So it kind of hurts me to write what you're all about to read (which, by the way, contains quite a few spoilers), but his latest film was such a disappointment and brought up so many other issues surrounding his recent body of work that I felt the need to speak on it...
Thirty minutes into watching Stoker, Park's latest and first English-speaking film, I came to the realization that the director has been riding on the success of Oldboy for quite some time now. Not to say that he's a one-hit wonder or anything like that. I know plenty of people who think Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and JSA are just as strong. But at the end of the day, Oldboy is what he's best known for. Now thanks to Stoker, Park is part of that fraternity of great foreign filmmakers who've tried to make the transition to English-speaking cinema whose style just doesn't come across for some reason (Wong Kar-wai/My Blueberry Nights, George Sluizer/The Vanishing, Volker Schlöndorff/Palmetto, etc.)* But Park's descent didn't just suddenly begin with Stoker. I mean seriously, ask yourself: what has he done worthy of any kind of real praise since 2005? I get the feeling most of his fans (especially his American fans) have been equally as disappointed as me with his recent stuff, but that they're in denial. It's like there's a voice in the back of their heads going, "But he made Oldboy, I have to like this!" as they watch trainwrecks like his 2006 feature I'm a Cyborg, But That's Ok. I understand that Park kind of has that iconic/"godfather" status within modern Korean cinema and I highly doubt other popular Korean films like Mother, The Host and I Saw the Devil would have gotten the same kind of recognition had he not burst onto the scene. It's tough to admit when a good filmmaker who's responsible for great works like Oldboy and Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance puts out a series of stinkers, but he can't keep getting passes based on stuff he did almost 10 years ago; I don't care how much Quentin Tarantino co-signs his career.
Speaking of Tarantino - is it just me, or does anyone else feel like the validation and praise from Quentin Tarantino with his strange fetish-like fascination for modern east-Asian cinema act as a bad luck charm? It's no mystery that he has a serious case of "yellow fever," but what people fail to acknowledge is that the minute he aligns himself with or attaches his name alongside a modern Asian filmmaker, their careers either go south or they go through a dark period. Quentin Tarantino attached his name all over the Chungking Express dvd, after which Wong Kar-wai eventually goes on to make his worst film ever, My Blueberry Nights, and has yet to recover. Kim Ji-woon makes A Tale Of Two Sisters, quite possibly his best film, then he goes on to collaborate with Tarantino and makes The Good, the Bad, the Weird. I don't care what the rating is on Rotten Tomatoes, that film was a silly mess and at all representative of Kim's style - it just felt like Tarantino was directing through him (Kim recently bounced back from the "Tarantino curse" with I Saw the Devil.) Takashi Miike had a good thing going with Audition and Ichi the Killer, then he makes an appearance in Hostel (I'm aware Tarantino only produced that one but he must have had something to do with getting Miike involved.) Now Miike will always be associated with one of the worst movies ever made. Park Chan-wook has also become a victim of the curse: the minute Tarantino saw Oldboy at Cannes in 2003, he couldn’t stop talking about it. It got to the point where Tarantino's name was mentioned just as much as Park's whenever Oldboy came up in conversation, even though he had absolutely nothing to do with the film. Ever since Tarantino took notice of Park Chan-wook, he hasn't been the same.
I had a conversation with Chris Funderburg a little while back about whether or not Claire Denis intentionally sabotaged her career by following up the beautifully artsy Beau Travail with the shocking and unexpected Trouble Every Day, and I wonder if Park tried to do the same thing after his Vengeance trilogy (Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance.) I know artists, especially directors, don't like to be pinned down, boxed in or categorized. Maybe the craziness of Oldboy and its related films got bigger than expected and Park didn't want to be labeled as just a violent director, so he made a quirky romantic comedy in the form of I'm a Cyborg, But That's Ok. I have no problem with a director stepping outside of his/her comfort zone and showing versatility, but if you're going to do that at least do it good. I'm a Cyborg was pretty awful. It comes off like one long, brightly colored J-Pop music video. 2009's Thirst was an improvement, but just about anything is an improvement following I'm a Cyborg. Thirst had some style and a particular ambience, but overall it was kind of boring and just seemed to blend in with all the other vampire-related films and television shows that came out around the time, almost as if it was trying to capitalize on the vampire craze.
I'm not exactly sure what everyone was so excited about when the news got out that Park was making Stoker. What was all the hype for? He hadn't made anything good in years. What made people (myself included) think that Stoker would be any good based on what he'd done leading up to it? It's almost like everything he made after 2005 didn't exist.
In Stoker, Mia Wasikowska plays India, an introverted teen whose father has just died in what appears to be a car accident. Now she's left alone with her irresponsible mother (Nicole Kidman) until her deceased father's long lost brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) suddenly moves in and asserts himself as the man of the house. From the beginning there's obvious unspoken sexual tension between India and her uncle and the longer he stays the more things spiral out of control. Although Stoker was a huge disappointment and didn't really feel like a Park Chan-wook film, it still featured quite a few of his signatures: incest, heavy foreshadowing, female anti-heroes and violence.
As far as the performances, there's not much to praise in that department either. Matthew Goode bugs me. It's not like he's a bad actor, but he plays the same guy in every movie and Charlie is no exception - the soft spoken handsome guy with the ambiguous accent who makes intense eye contact with everyone. I have yet to see him really stretch as an actor; Stoker was his opportunity to do so and he didn't really do much with the character he was given. A sociopathic murderer should have some kind of edginess, and there was nothing edgy or intimidating about Charlie. What's even worse is that Goode still had the most memorable performance in the film. I honestly have to remind myself that Nicole Kidman was in this. I don't mean for this to sound mean-spirited, but her performance really is pretty forgettable. I have nothing bad to say about Mia Wasikowska's performance, but I don't really have anything nice to say about it either so, moving on...
Stoker draws heavily upon the style of Alfred Hitchcock – noir, tension and suspense, the charming/mysterious yet certifiably insane sociopathic villain, creepy old mansions with squeaky steps, symbolism, innuendos and the pivotal plot twist. Maybe I'm reaching, but this seemed like an unnecessary attempt by Park and writer Wentworth Miller to try and connect with the English-speaking audience by tipping their hat to a universally-known director like Hitchcock. This may sound blasphemous, but some of Hitchcock's elements that Park references are a bit dated and extra melodramatic - the proof of this was all in the reaction of the audience I saw Stoker with. There were quite a few overly-melodramatic scenes that I know were supposed to be taken seriously, such as India and Uncle Charlie passionately playing the piano together and the scene where India masturbates in the shower, that drew nothing but laughter from the audience. Also, there's all these tense and suspenseful moments that lead you to believe something is about to happen and...nothing happens. I understand you don't want to blow your load right away in a thriller by having a bunch of jolts and startles early on in the film, but gimme something! I lost count of how many times India creeped through her house as if she was about to discover something shocking and...she doesn't.
50% percent of Stoker just felt like scenes of some awkward teenage girl moping around a mansion like she's on cough syrup. There is one mildly startling scene where India finds her grandmother's dead body in the basement - for whatever reason, the decomposing corpse didn't stink up the house and nobody seemed to notice the grandmother was missing along with all the other people Uncle Charlie kills throughout the course of the film. Not since Prometheus has there been so many plot holes. I don't like to be that annoying guy calling out plot holes and whatnot, but there were some aspects of the story that could have been much tighter. If you didn't figure it out already by just watching the trailer, Uncle Charlie killed India's father (SURPRISE!) and for some reason no one is able to piece together the fact that the father was last seen picking up his psychopathic brother (you know...Uncle Charlie?) from the insane asylum. Next is India's great aunt, played by Jackie Weaver. She becomes yet another one of Charlie's victims, but for some reason no one notices that she suddenly went missing after she goes to visit her psychopathic nephew that spent the majority of his life locked away for murder. The only reason all this bugs me is that at one point in the story, one of India's classmates goes missing and the local sheriff investigates his disappearance yet doesn't look in to all the other people who suddenly disappear the minute Charlie rolls in to town.
Stoker has no climax or any kind of a finale. It's all just so...pointless. What was the point of this film?? It reminded me of Joshua (2007), another hyped-up, Hitchcock-influenced thriller full of suspenseful scenes that go nowhere.
Park Chan-wook can't be blamed for all of Stoker's problems. After all, he didn't write it and a lot of the film's problems lie in the script (although he obviously read the script beforehand, so he should have known that this wasn't a very good story he would be directing, but whatever...) There are a lot of elements working against the film: a first time actor-turned-screenwriter, a cast of actors that'll make you shrug your shoulders and a director working in unfamiliar territory. Instead of collaborating with his regular troop of Korean actors with whom he's developed chemistry over the years, Park Chan-wook found himself working with a totally new cast for the first time. And please let it be known that this isn't a case of a potentially good film directed by some maverick filmmaker ruined by established/"big name" actors (Nicole Kidman, Jackie Weaver, Mathew Goode, etc). In my opinion, had the same exact film been made in Korea using Korean actors it would have been just as bad.
The director: Park Chan-wook
The movie: Stoker (2013)
Why so out of place in director's filmography?: A bad story full of plot holes and inconsistencies, unmemorable performances, boring and predictable.
Why the director strayed: I guess for a chance to direct his first English language film and tap into a wider audience.
Scale of embarrassment for the director: 7.5 outta 10.
His triumphant return to form: Hasn't happened yet. Stoker is the third film in a consecutive string of bad films by Park Chan-wook.
* Naturally there are exceptions: the US Funny Games, Paris Texas, Dear Wendy, Certified Copy, etc.
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