I have not seen the film yet but this is an exceptionally well-written piece. A certain Chan-wook fan on the blog had promised to me that she would she would write something on it (though she can educate us on the first paragraph, or more specifically the first sentence, of this article.)- regrettably she has not even seen it till now (probably because she is deeply saddened by the news that Josh Brolin is going to do a number on his Korean counterpart in the Spike Lee directed remake of Chan-wook’s Oldboy!).
“Stoker”: The Fears and Fantasies of Everyteen
Posted by Richard Brody
March 5, 2013
“The proper translation for Freud’s 1909 coinage “Familienroman,” or “family romance”—regarding the child’s liberation fantasy of “the replacement of both parents or of the father alone by grander people”—is actually the “family novel,” and there’s something agreeably, engagingly novelistic about “Stoker,” the South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s incursion into a cushy corner of Connecticut and the tangled-up desires, dreams, memories, and impulses of one long-deluded teen-age girl, India Stoker (played by Mia Wasikowska). What the movie most resembles is a young-adult novel, of the sort that was the subject of controversy a couple of years ago for being “too dark.” For all the movie’s melodramatic twists, hyperbolic doings, and posh surroundings, its substance is very much the fears and fantasies and family loam of Everyteen (in particular, of familiar media versions of teen-age girls).
It starts out as a variation on a theme by Alfred Hitchcock—that of “Shadow of a Doubt” and the arrival of the mysterious, glamorous, seductive, long-absent Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). But where Hitchcock brings the uncle into a stable home that he then sets on its ear, Park and the screenwriter Wentworth Miller (with contributions by Erin Cressida Wilson) catch the family at a moment of utter vulnerability: India has just lost her father (Dermot Mulroney), with whom she was very close. Charlie, whom she had never met, finally shows up at the sumptuous and isolated family estate and ingratiates himself, rapidly and pressingly, with his brother’s widow (Nicole Kidman).
Things are quickly revealed to be even worse than they seem, as Charlie takes decisive steps to edge out of the picture anyone—the longtime housekeeper, an elderly great-aunt (Jacki Weaver)—who comes to doubt his motives. At first, it appears as if he covets both his brother’s wife and her fortune, and India becomes suspicious as well—but she also seems flickeringly jealous, and, where the young woman in Hitchcock kept her incestuous fantasies tightly contained, India avows them with a full-throated ecstasy (achieved, as it were, with yet another Hitchcockian touch). Yet the violence to which Uncle Charlie sinks is doubled by India’s own rough, physical response to a bullying classmate’s crude aggression. It’s hard to avoid spoilers at this point, but let’s leave it at this: India discovers that her parents have been concealing something very important regarding her uncle—and, given her emotionally close relationship with him, something very important about herself, about character traits that are a part of her own blood. When the truth comes out, her world is overturned, her monsters are unleashed, and she finds herself without the solid footing of character, self-knowledge, and moral clarity to fight them.
“Stoker” is fundamentally a gothic horror story about the devastating power of secrets: India has been protected from ugliness by parents of good will, who keep it hidden; but the dark, suppressed knowledge bursts forth to destroy the family that the very repression was meant to protect, and the secrecy leaves most bereft the girl it was meant to sustain. In short, it’s a fiction on the subject of the fiction—the lies—on which a family and its mythology are based, and the devastatingly corrosive, corrupting power of those lies to undo the family, the sense of identity, and the values that are built on them. The result is a sort of comedy-stripped “Fractured Fairy Tale” about growing up in a family of an apparently exemplary merit that is built on a myth of cloistered exceptionalism. In effect, the movie is a demolition of the dollhouse and a revelation of the unholy terror that its perfect dolls contain but aren’t equipped to confront. It suggests that, for every teen, family identity is in some way a dubious fabrication, and it puts forth a violent variety of “family romance”—a destructive and quasi-nihilistic fantasy—as both a warning and an antidote.
Park films the story with the visual equivalent of purple prose, a kind of eye-rollingly rhetorical passion in love with its own gleaming, glowing rhapsody that suggests precisely the sumptuous indulgences on which the tale runs. He creates an alluring visual dollhouse with no door, and with windows that distort the outward view into the same twisted gaze as prevails within. It’s not profound, but it points in the direction of profundity. Park puts the movie’s intentions and meanings in the forefront and holds little behind them; for a movie about the power of imagination, he leaves little to it. His visual style may overfeed the eye with emotion but doesn’t sicken it of fantasy—doesn’t offer any plainer or starker alternatives. The story may hint at a counterlife—an altogether more prosaic, less pristine, less ostensibly perfect and, for that matter, respectable way of life, one that comes with its grimy and laborious trouble built in, its ugly places and stories present at hand—but Park doesn’t offer a vision of it. The story involves the inescapability and universality of a fiction, perpetrated by parents, as the very basis and inevitable canker of the family—but the movie converges to another realm of enticingly generic fantasies, as suggested from the start by its decorative delight in bloodshed and the obvious sequel that its ending sets up. In its first weekend, “Stoker” took in more than twenty-two thousand dollars per screen; maybe that sequel won’t be long to arrive.”