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

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

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