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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What we can learn from Harry Potter’s “mad women”

We revist the “mad” women of Harry Potter, both good, bad and somewhere in between.

Madness is a fluid thing. To be “crazy” has no fixed meaning, it changes to fit the definition required – whether that’s a quick fix to deflect blame for the powerful (think racism, terrorism or fascism damagingly dismissed as “mental illness”) or a cunning way to dismiss the powerless: She’s not telling the truth! She’s crazy! Madness may be utterly meaningless, but it has infinite power.

In the often unreal space of mental illness, the fantasy world of books, movies and television can intertwine with one’s lived experience. I hated reading until Harry Potter came to me as a traumatised ten-year-old. In between bouts of psychosis and extreme suicidal ideation I would read, and read, and read. They were big books too, so thick, no picture – but it was worth it. A whole world just for me! Now isn’t that magical?

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of this wonderful, wizarding world, I find myself returning to the “mad” women of Harry Potter, both good, bad and somewhere in between. Bellatrix Lestrange, Moaning Myrtle, Luna Lovegood, Professor Trelawney... Who are these characters beyond their exaggerated mannerisms and super cute style? What are they telling us about the cultural codes of madness and the construct of the “mad woman”?

Because despite being more distressed when I was sorted into Slytherin than when I was presented with a personality disorder, pop culture and medical realities cross over in interesting and unexpected ways. These culturally agreed upon outfits of “madness” are retold and remade over and over. Who can wear the costume of madness, and in what way, in the popular imagination?

Luna Lovegood

First, let’s go for one of for one of the “good guys”. “Looney Luna”, the dazed Hogwarts student as pale as a full moon, is portrayed in the films with a quietly mesmerising performance from Evanna Lynch. Bullied for her “horrid” dress sense and marked out for her “distinct dottiness”, Luna was one of my teen idols. Young, brilliant, equally skilled at making novelty hats, riding thestrals and saving the wizarding world, Luna is up there with the best of them!

An heiress to madness, as the child of Xenophilius Lovegood, notorious for his “lunatic rag”, The Quibbler (known for its coverage of elusive magical creatures and defiantly radical politics), Luna, in her ability to embrace the impossible, is often characterised as an ‘anti-Hermione’, she is more than a mere shadow of another girl.

After all, in inhabiting such a distinct world of her own creation, shaped both by the grief of losing her mother and her own personal vision, it could be easy to dismiss her as a mere manic pixie dream girl, especially when considering her ability to recognise and support Harry’s struggles when others could not, but Luna’s character is more robust than these misogynistic tropes. Not only does she save Harry’s reputation with an interview in the much-maligned Quibbler (another reminder not to judge the ‘loony’ on first glance), she serves as a dedicated member of Dumbledore’s Army, acting as an essential force in The Battle of the Department of Mysteries, The Battle of The Astronomy Tower and of course, the final Battle For Hogwarts. Yes, her eccentricities are dismissed as ‘loony’, but they belong to a heroic character in possession of creativity, wit, intellect – and, of course, unique style. (A necklace made of Butterbeer corks, anyone?)

Pale, pop cultural misfits are funny things. Winona Ryder, Audrey Tatou in Amelie, Zooey Deschanel, Kate Bush… sometimes outsiders are more insiders than you’d realise. Nonetheless, I will fangirl for Luna forever.

Professor Sybill Trelawney

Perhaps seen as another antagonist to Hermione’s bookish rationality, and an adult mirror for Luna’s own dream logic, Professor Sybill Trelawney is a shining star in a long line of magical “mad women”. Can’t you just imagine her and the Log Lady from Twin Peaks bonding over a pint of Pumpkin Juice? The links between madness and the mystic run deep, it is no coincidence that Sybill’s Grandmother takes the name of Cassandra. Who would believe a mad woman? But who but a mad woman can see the truth in a chaotic world? (Luna, too, is characterised as keen observer, after all.) The pop cultural mystic provokes so many questions in regards to the mythology of madness (an often unhelpful fetish for those of us who are actually struggling with our mental health) and broader questions of believing women when we are constantly dismissed as irrational, ridiculous or unreliable.

Though her exaggerated costume and “woolly” predictions could reduce her to a mere comic support act, Sybill has far more nuance than the (seemingly) ridiculous individual we are presented with in the start of the third book. Throughout the series, her character deepens and develops: we see a heartbreakingly vulnerable side to her in the fifth book, and though her gift for The Inner Eye may have been dismissed early on, her predictions eventually become essential in defeating Voldemort. Sybill even plays a fearless role in The Battle of Hogwarts, knocking out Death Eaters with her crystal balls. One of Harry Potter’s many lessons is not to dismiss unconventional women like Sybill too quickly. As a result, Sybill stands out as a beautiful branch on the tree of mystic weirdos. Who knows what miraculous things we might discover if we take the time to listen to her?

Moaning Myrtle

Existing as an exaggeration of teen girl melancholy, Moaning Myrtle is trapped in the school that bullied and eventually killed her. She’s pictured as forever crying in the girls’ bathroom on the first floor, unwanted and unmissed, with even her attempt at high school revenge washed out. There’s been so many perceptive conversations on the post-Kraus female gaze: wouldn’t it be interesting to locate Myrtle within them? She’s depicted as crushing on any boy that comes her way (be it Harry, Cedric or Malfoy), though the only thing she has to offer them is a toilet. Even her acne is “morose”.

This is a world where Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” plays on loop for eternity, effortlessly brought to (after)life by the brilliant Shirley Henderson, Queen of crying in public bathrooms. I’ll leave with my favourite quote that could one up even the most contentious Lana Del Rey soundbite:

Myrtle: “I wasn’t paying attention. Peeves upset me so much I came in here and tried to kill myself. Then, of course, I remembered that I’m — that I’m —”

Ron: “Already dead.”

Bellatrix LeStrange

And then we have Bellatrix: crazy in love with the Dark Lord himself, escaped inmate from a madness inducing institution, and a total Amy Winehouse prototype in her aesthetic of long black hair, low voice and heavily-lidded eyes.

It’s striking how frequently certain traits reoccur in pop culture when we envision the criminally insane, especially when it comes to women. Much like Harley Quinn of the Batman universe or Drusilla in Buffy, Bellatrix talks in the bizarre baby talk so popular with the fantasy mad woman. We are presented with a woman infantilised. This is also at play in her relationship with Voldemort: she’s totally dependent and utterly out of control.

If we can read Luna and Sybill as playful antagonists to such rational figures as Professor McGonagall and Hermione, Bellatrix serves as an active threat against Molly Weasley, the only true maternal figure Harry really has in the series. Sirius’ face may be the one burnt off the House of Black’s family tree, but it is Bellatrix who is the real destroyer of families: from the torture of Neville Longbottom’s parents, to the murder of her cousin (and Harry’s Godfather) Sirius Black and her own niece, Nymphadora Tonks. She even kills Dobby! In setting Bellatrix up as a total monster, it’s unsurprising that she became the only character to earn an all caps curse word in this child-friendly book. Because female evil has a particular kind of power, it provokes disgust in ways that others do not. Consider Umbridge, another reigning villainess with her hot pink get-ups and kitsch cat study, a sort of Nurse Ratched of Hogwarts. To use the building blocks of femininity to make a monster harbours true horror, so it is the female villains, both mad and bad, that stand out most sharply when it comes to Harry’s nemeses.

In the exaggerated fantasy world of Harry Potter this cast of mad women may seem like simplistic set characters of quirky creatives, cry-babies, unrealizable narrators and outright she-Devils. However, if we look closer at these ghostly voyeurs, escaped prisoners and outright eccentrics we can position these characters within a longer cultural history of ‘insane’ and outrageous women. Madness is often presented as a sort of magic and it is these mad women, existing in the already improbable space of witches and wizards, that push even further against our received ideas of rationality, respectability, even human goodness. Pottermore may have sorted me into Slytherin, but it is the Hogwarts House of Mad Women whose robes I choose to wear.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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