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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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem