Stoker Chan-wook Park (USA 2013) Mia Wasikowska; Nicole Kidman; Matthew Goode
Viewed Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle UK 1st March 2013; Ticket: £8
a kiss is just a kiss
This piece of Gothic Amerikana is in one sense another revisiting of Park's (P) favourite theme, incest.
The incest theme was the mainspring of Old Boy and it is the psychic mainspring behind Stoker but for this film the incest idea has been transposed to the ut - (dys)- topia of suburban upper middle class USA.
The film takes its psychic mainspring from the eponymous word in its title 'Stoker' Some one or something that builds up a fire, feeds the flames. So either India's hormonally charged sexual development that stokes the fire, or perhaps the obsessive nature of hypocritical family secrecy, the keeping of skeletons locked in cupboards, feeds the flames that burn through the scenario.
Interestingly, the Stoker (der Heizer)is also the title of the first short story by Kafka and became the first chapter of his uncompleted novel 'America'. At the core of the story is a grudge and the turning point of the story is a revealed quasi incestuous relationship between nephew and forgotten Uncle. Although Kafka's short story is an imaginative journey, Kafka expresses an intimate understanding of his characters; whereas Park as director communicates detachment from his material. As if his main point of contact with this cultural strand of American life has been watching the movies of Terrence Malick.
Like Hollywood in general and Malick in particular a careful avoidance of context (social occupational historical) is critical to the way that Stoker's coding deciphers the human relations in the scenarios. There are no dates, no real occupations (there are offices locations of employment but these too are dislocated decontextualised. [nb the deceased Mr Stoker is supposed to have been an architect but the house does not look like an architects home]), no media. Only hermetically sealed worlds in which the angels and demons of a shared post Spielberg moral consensus can be set in play. We are looking at a deterritorialised characters. They exist as oppositions in relation to each other: husband /wife, brother/sister, mother/son, but not as possibilities in relation to the world. And it is in this world voided of the actual, that Park has chosen to direct Stoker. The world as a bell jar.
P's style of filming is very like the cinematography of Malick's movies. The tracks have a similar slow floating enunciate style which functions as a cue, that something of significance is in train, whether or not this is the case. The look of the S has that same hyper real HD luminance that is intended in Malicks's cinematography to imbue the shot with a symbolic shimmering resonance; the more banal the shot the more both Malick and Park work to give the images a liminal meaning to add lustre and link to narrative structures shaped more by cod psychology than real forces.
Hence perhaps, this piece of American gothic, like other films such as Ramsey's 'We need to talk about Kevin', is filled out with Americana weird. Little shots, bolted onto the shooting script to show us that the film has moved into 'weird' territory, so that we can expect weird 'stuff' to happen. Stoker has it's insects (Bunuel inspired perhaps), the fetish object it makes of India's shoes, eggs, the metronome etc all which are supposed to imbue the scenario with psychic significance, psychological depth. In effect this style of film,to avoid taking risks, abuses symbolism as an cheap and easy means to express inner movement. The reason I use the word abuse is that the symbolism used by Park here and Ramsey is plucked from a compendium of Freudian dreams, an c arbitrary or opportunistic plucking from the dictionary. The symbols and the symbolic images they generate are not won from context, grounded in the material and then understood as possessing a wider signification. Like the shoes in S they are represented from the start of the film as being very significant. They then become a little puzzle built into the film; why are these symbols significant?
Like Malicks's script, P puffs out S with inscrutable philosophical phrases, lines spoken by the lead characters. These have a fake Zen quality, perhaps because faux Zen is perfect grist to the Hollywood script mill. Whereas insights that are hard won in the Zen tradition, in the Hollywood tradition they can be cheaply traduced as realisations, exploited by Hollywood scenarists who need a fix of philosophy to bulk out their characters. Malick tends to bulk out his characters' emptiness with little quips about the realisation of 'love', by way of bestowing meaning on the proceedings. P and his script writer Miller, use the same ploy to insert proto Nietschian sentiments into the mouths of the characters from time to time. So we have India telling that she is as she is because…' a flower doesn't chose its colour.' Debatable what this means, but it is the basis for presenting the triumph of nature over nurture.
A kiss is just a kiss…?
Like many film of this type it is ultimately rendered uninteresting by its intrinsic mechanicality. A slasher vampire or zombie movie is enjoyable in its mechanistic working through of permutations of death. But these movies generally avoid inventing formed characters to whom the viewer can assign markers of an assigned individuality. Evelyn Stoker is such a character in Stoker, supposedly the widow of Richard (there is a case that Charlie and Richard are split personalities of the same man) and mother of India. P lavishes his movie with an opening relationship between Evelyn and Charlie, but then the script reveals this relationship is really a cover for the hard on that Charlie in fact has for India. We gaze upon this reciprocated revealed incestuous relationship, as does Evelyn who witnesses a deep French kiss between the niece and uncle (father?). When Charlie realises he has been seen with his tongue down India's throat, he tries to divert Evelyn into dropping her guard, by making an immediate play for her (before admittedly strangling her with his strap). Now this play for Evelyn is led with his tongue, which he extrudes and is eagerly gobbled down by Evelyn, who sinks to the ground under the passion of Charlie's hot kiss. At this point we enter pantomime land, the never never land of the mechanicality of the film maker. Charlie can drop Evelyn's knickers, pant on her, but he cannot kiss her on the mouth with his mouth still dripping with India's saliva. The film dies back at this point.
Park seems well out of his cultural depth with Stoker. It is made with a eye to stringing together a series of arresting arbitrary images to make a piece of gothic americana that he does not really understand. He did this sort of thing better in Korea where he understood better the transgressions and cultural parameters needed pull of this kind of movie. In the USA he only succeeds in making another weird deterritorialised movie.