Reviewed: Stoker directed by Park Chan-wook

Niece to meet you.

Stoker (18)
dir: Park Chan-wook

Once upon a time, a South Korean director made a film in America about a fatherless 18- year-old named India placed in the care of her mother (played by an Australian) and the suave uncle she never knew she had (played by an Englishman) . . .

This hotchpotch of international elements has resulted in the seamless Stoker, an adult fairy tale that is perfectly ravishing and stylised enough to stand alongside Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves or Tarsem Singh’s The Fall. The film is not, as the title might suggest, a biopic of the author of Dracula, even though the director, Park Chanwook, comes to the project fresh from making his own vampire movie, Thirst. But it does concern a young woman, India (Mia Wasikowksa), cutting her teeth.

India’s bite is worse than her bark, literally so in one kissing scene with a high-school classmate. Her voice is but a tremulous murmur, the feeble vocal equivalent of her face, which is hospital-sheet pale and flanked by inky hair; she wouldn’t say “Boo!” to a bat. She provides the film’s opening narration, alerting us to characters no more able to alter themselves than flowers can change colour at will. In this India includes herself. She starts the film as a potential victim but this is a red herring. A blood-red herring.

Not that her dapper uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), materialising out of thin air in an array of tweeds and ties and tennis whites, isn’t plenty sinister enough. When India’s mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), jokes about him poisoning the dinner, she is verbalising her daughter’s suspicions and ours. The sulphurous whiff of foul play hangs over India’s father’s death long before we glimpse a documentary about deadly sibling rivalry between black eagles: another suggestion that murder is only natural.

As befits a story about awakening, metamorphosis bleeds into every corner of the film, even into Clint Mansell’s score, where an orchestral surge might give way to an electronic squall. Park’s favoured method of transition between shots is the dissolve, that layering of the incoming image over the departing one so that a cut becomes instead a delicate transformation. An eye turns into an egg; a close-up of Evelyn’s hair being brushed morphs imperceptibly into the next shot where two tiny hunters are hiding in the tall weeds. That visual segue makes it appear that they are Lilliputians concealed in her Gulliver tresses.

India is receptive to sights and sounds that are unavailable to the rest of us, and in rendering her world, the cinematography of Chung-hoon Chung is vividly heightened. It’s not enough to show India jabbing a tormentor with a pencil; the pay-off comes later, in an extreme close-up of her sharpening the weapon – the bloody shaving peels off like the skin of a tantalising fruit. The aesthetic of Stoker is storybook-brash in a way that overrides any demands for plausibility. Why would a person commit a murder in the only illuminated spot on a dark motel forecourt? Why would a domestic freezer in a vast house be stored in a dimly lit and inaccessible basement? These are the sorts of questions that the film hypnotises us into not asking.

India’s acceptance of her true nature leads Stoker into the territory of Brian De Palma’s 1976 film of Stephen King’s Carrie, about a timid girl in receipt of telekinetic powers. Park does not fight shy of the similarities. There is a stunning shot in the car park of a roadside diner where India appears in her nightdress: its white fabric is drenched in red neon, recalling Carrie in that blood soaked prom gown. Carrie also featured a distinctive shower scene, where the innocent heroine is shocked to find herself menstruating, and Stoker ventures into the shower stall for its own pivotal moment of sexual crisis. Recalling an act of violence at which she was present, even complicit, India becomes unusually thorough in her pursuit of the perfect lather.

If the genuinely Gothic allows for the existence of horror and beauty without either precluding the other, then Park is one of a small crop of modern directors to have pulled off that tricky balance. He also introduces a vein of camp that produces images to treasure without ever unbalancing the film: red-haired Evelyn drinking red wine; a red splash of brains on a red wall; a woman in high heels brandishing a hunting rifle. I’ve been resistant to Park’s previous movies, which were tipped too strongly toward cruelty (Oldboy) or whimsy (I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK). This one, though, left me stoked.

Nicole Kidman in Park Chan-wook's "Stoker".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times