dir: Park Chan-wook
There are families, there are dysfunctional families, and then there is the Stoker family. I went into this knowing next to nothing about it other than it was the English-language debut of the great Korean director Park Chan-wook, perhaps best known for Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, two outstanding and grim examples of the best South Korean cinema has to offer.
But, he’s also the director of films I’ve liked a lot less, mostly because I was expecting something significantly different from what he intended to show us, the fools in the audience, and that can affect how you appreciate something.
This is a very dark and macabre film. Beautiful, no doubt, beautifully constructed and composed, as are all his films, but it's cold, detached, at a remove, like some of its main characters, uninterested in having its audience care about whatever happens to most of the characters in the film.
India Stoker (Australia's Own Mia Wasikowska) is an odd girl, something of a goth, obsessed with death and clearly not quite right in the head. She dresses like a creepy girl of an earlier era, in fact she dresses like Wednesday Addams from The Addams Family. The poor girl, apart from clearly being somewhat disturbed even before the film starts, loses her beloved father on her 18th birthday, upon which she discovers a great many things about her family that she never knew about.
For one, in the days that follow the funeral, she discovers a creepy uncle (Matthew Goode) whose existence she'd never known of. She also discovers that her mother (Nicole Kidman), in case she had no idea previous, is something of a cold, spiteful bitch, despite her smiles and smooth words, and even smoother, untroubled brow. Suspiciously smooth, I would say, not a line upon that 'perfect' face to mark the passage of time.
Mother sees daughter not solely as an odd encumbrance, but also as the competition.
The creepy uncle is ever-present, always somehow knowing where she is, where she has been, where she will be. India, being strange already, both notices all the strange things that seem to be going on around her, but also seems to be not too perturbed by them. In fact, the stranger and more horrifying circumstances become, the more she seems to like it.
This goes beyond a morbid curiousity in death and deathly things. Let me just point out here that this isn't a horror flick per se, or a supernatural flick of any description. It's solely a story about a deeply disturbed WASPy family, like something out of an Edgar Alan Poe story or a more demented John Cheever, and the incredible turn of events that start unfolding once Creepy Uncle turns up, and India discovers that she's far more comfortable with death than she ever imagined.
Creepy Uncle is creepy, at first, not because of anything he does, but because of what he doesn't do. He's always smiling, and looking upon India with benevolent concern. Familial love, even. He clearly hits things off smashingly with India's mother in a way that implies Mother is moving on comfortably even as early as her husband's funeral. India distrusts him completely: the nicer he is, the more she distrusts. And she especially distrusts the story this man tells of his own life, becoming a gourmet chef in Paris, driving around the Amalfi Coast, becoming the witty, urbane, genial gentleman that he clearly must be.
Is it any wonder that people start dropping like flies? Along with India's increasing comfort with death, there seems to be a strange, or at least, disturbing link between death and India's sexuality, kindled by the jealousy aroused by seeing her mother manhandled by this allegedly charming interloper. Who wouldn't be turned on by seeing their mother, if their mother was Nicole Kidman, being manhandled by a man as handsome as Matthew Goode?
Wait, no, 'turned on' wasn't the phrase I was looking for, deeply fucking horrified and squicked out is what I was looking for. But what's horripilating to me, me being me, is arousing to India, who, despite her high intelligence, is missing some key elements of humanity, and you have to wonder where this deeply seeded dysfunction arose from.
And she's not even close to being the most fucked up person in this flick.
Look, uncles get a bad rap in novels and movies, and, after seeing this flick, maybe they should. I've enjoyed Matthew Goode's performances in a string of flicks, and he's played monsters before, but this one is probably the greatest juxtaposition between what he appears to be, and what he truly is inside. Like I said before, it's what he doesn't do that makes his character so disconcerting.
Of all of Park Chan-wook's flicks, the ones I've liked the least were Thirst and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The former I just found flat out boring, and the latter I didn't understand that well at the time, but now it makes a hell of a lot more sense, since I don't think it's so weird any more that he links Catholicism, sex and death in such a fashion. I guess they're deeply intertwined, at least for Catholics.
I found the flick unpleasant when it was meant to be unpleasant, and darkly funny when it was trying to be, so on that score I'd have to say the flick succeeds at everything it tries to achieve. It's not a crowd-pleaser by any stretch of the imagination, and I can only tentatively recommend it to anyone, seeing as how nasty it gets in parts.
Mia Wasikowska is great as the main character, but she's great in everything, so it barely warrants stating. No, it warrants stating. She impresses me in almost everything she does, she just makes acting look so natural and easy, the complete opposite of what it actually is. This character of India is one I don't want to spend time with ever again, unlike her Jane Eyre or even her Alice in Wonderland, but she portrays the character in a fascinating way. There's something unhinged and almost feral about her, even though she is, on the surface, calm at all times.
The film begins and ends with India taking a stance, next to a field, poised, calm, and with the narration, she tells us nothing more complicated than what she is wearing. Only at the end, once we've seen why she is there, and what it means that she is wearing those articles of clothing, do we realise how truly horrific her innocent stance at the beginning was, and how foolish we were to believe in the simple innocence of a natural image.
Or in hers. It's a beautiful but horrifying flick. That's not a fun night out at the movies, but it's catnip for sick puppies who like family stories, and dramatic, permanent solutions to their conflicts.
8 times I'm going to have nightmares about this family and about belts out of 10
"My ears hear what others cannot hear; small faraway things people cannot normally see are visible to me. These senses are the fruits of a lifetime of longing, longing to be rescued, to be completed. Just as the skirt needs the wind to billow, I'm not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father's belt tied around my mother's blouse, and shoes which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its colour, we are not responsible for what we have become" - yeah, yeah, it's always someone else’s fault, isn't it - Stoker