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Korean director Park Chan-wook’s films aren’t for wusses. His canon, which includes the cult classic revenge thriller Oldboy, usually revolves around highly stylized visuals, extremely graphic violence, and often brutal subject matter. So the director’s oeuvre doesn’t make him the most likely candidate for the mainstream studio system. But in Hollywood, he found an unexpected ally for his latest film, Stoker, which opens in D.C. theaters this Friday.
Based on a script from actor Wentworth Miller (the guy from Prison Break), the film finds Park working with Hollywood heavies Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Jackie Weaver, and Mia Wasikowska. But don’t call Park a sellout. Stoker, a Hitchcockian gothic thriller, tells the story of odd, introverted teenager India Stoker (Wasikowska), whose life is turned upside down when her father is killed and the uncle she never knew existed (Goode) moves in with the family. A deeply haunting and unsettling psychological potboiler, Stoker is perhaps the director’s most stylish—-and accomplished—-film to date.
I recently sat down with the prolific Korean director (and his translator) to talk about Stoker, the challenges of making an English-language movie when you don’t speak English, and ideas about where evil comes from. Warning: His response to my last question produces a spoiler. Avert your eyes.
Washington City Paper: Because this was not only your English-language debut but also the first movie you’ve made with a major studio, what were some of the biggest challenges you had in making this film?
Park Chan-wook: First of all, I anticipated a lot of challenges, specifically in how to work with the studio without any influence or interruptions. Second of all, I imagined that the language barrier would prove to be a big challenge as well. However, going into the project, I found that those two aspects weren’t actually that difficult to deal with. To say that they proved no challenge at all would be a lie. But I was able to overcome both of those challenges in a very positive way. What proved to be the biggest challenge to me was contending with such a small number of shoot days.
WCP: The film is beautifully shot and has this very gothic look and feel to it. Can you talk about the process you and your cinematographer worked on to achieve this?
PCW: The director of photography, Chung-hoon Chung, was the only Korean crew that I brought along to work on this film. As the closest person to the director, bringing over the D.P. that I’ve worked with since Oldboy proved to be very significant. But, the process of working him is an unconventional one. I don’t really sit him down and say “We are doing this film, what sort of overarching stylistic concepts should we strive for?” We sit down and I say, “So, now that we’re doing this film, let’s talk about each shot that we’re going use to tell this story.” It’s really a shot-by-shot discussion.
WCP: But you must have some sort of stylistic game plan before going into production.
PCW: All the conversation tends to lead to what’s the best way to express each shot. The only stylistic aspect we really talked in the case of Stoker, was that the story is almost entirely set in one house, so let’s try not to make it too constricted or frustratingly claustrophobic. Visually speaking, we would talk about very pragmatic things in regard to the look of the film. However, I did talk to my D.P. about the script—different elements and aspects about it. But not just the kind of conversation you might imagine would take place between a director and D.P. We would talk about the characters, the type of music that might work for a particular scene, things like that. In talking about these elements, a certain sense of shared vision arises; a meeting of minds in terms of the sensibility of the film.
WCP: I read an interview with you a few years ago where you said you wanted to make a film about the devil and the existence of evil, and that’s where your film Thirst came from. Stoker almost seems like an extension of that idea.
PCW: You’re right, this film very much deals with the idea of where evil comes from—whether it’s something you’re born with or something that’s developed over time. This is a film that poses these types of questions for audiences to think about. From a certain perspective, the audience might perceive the film as one where Uncle Charlie and India share some common traits in their DNA, which gives rise to evil. But in another perspective, this may not be the case.
WCP: How so?
PCW: In the flashback scenes that show Uncle Charlie as a child, you can see that his older brother’s affection shifts to his new, younger brother, Jonathan, when he’s born. When we see that Charlie is no longer monopolizing on his older brother’s affection, he kills his baby brother. Audiences might think that this act is an act of pure evil, but it is not unmotivated. He certainly has motivation. It’s something that we can identify with, in that when we have younger siblings and see how affection from our parents or older siblings shifts toward a new member of the family, you can feel this certain sense of jealousy. I believe that this is a very universal emotion. However, in this film, that emotion is obviously exaggerated. But rather than the exaggeration of emotion, the most important aspect in reading this film is to analyze whether such an act of violence is motivated or not motivated. So in that sense, you might say that Uncle Charlie isn’t entirely born evil because there is a motivation for his behavior and actions. In the case of India, there are two perspectives to her character: whether evil is in her blood or whether evil is something that Uncle Charlie—this outside factor—comes in and develops within her. That is what this film explores.
Stoker image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures Due to a reporting error, this post incorrectly referred to Park Chan-wook by his first name instead of his last name, Park. The post has been corrected.