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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Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism