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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

God's Great Design: Park Chan-wook's "Stoker"

“It would be impossible for an architect like Richard to understand God’s Great Design,” a reverend says during the funeral for the recently departed Richard Stoker (Durmot Mulrony) in Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut Stoker, the grieving widow Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) in the cemetery looking on.  The patriarch Richard, seen in a photograph beside the coffin, was killed in a mysterious accident, his body burned to a crisp – a detail we gather as some house servants dip breaded meat into a frying pan. A preposterous story of eerie American gothic and budding sexuality, triggered by the arrival of the strange and charming Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), Stoker is not a twisty puzzle to be solved, eventually shimmering with clarity when the disparate units are assembled. Like similarly themed films where we can’t trust our eyes (Eyes Wide Shut, Shutter Island, Antichrist, The Master) or say the nightmarish noir classics of Fritz Lang (Ministry of Fear, The Big Heat), Stoker isn’t about plot or even character so much as its about the almost musical leitmotifs constructed in the film’s design, the whole hermetically fastened in its own circle of damning recurrences.  As we see with India in the film’s gruesome final moments, Stoker strikingly gets our attention and then leaves us to bleed out in nature.  Like the indifferent natural world that surrounds the uncertain geography of Stoker the film and the Stoker household, the picture’s design is that it just is.

Stoker oozes a sense central to Alfred Hitchcock, whose Shadow of a Doubt gave Uncle Charlie his inspiration with Joseph Cotton’s widow-strangling uncle who comes back home, finding himself psychically linked as a “twin” to his namesake niece Charlie (Teresa Wright). It’s a sense that Hitchcock shared with Britain’s Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, Peeping Tom) who verbalized it: “I am cinema.” The motion picture is like an organic being with its own ecosystem or nervous system and biology, not a flat surface on which we watch things in a theatrical two dimension, but as a revolving sphere that absorbs us working through its incessant revolutions of sound and vision, its consonance interpreted by what is in the frame and out of the frame, while having an intertextual genealogy of which one can theorize, tracing back influence to other films, other worlds.  Form and content don’t represent a binary, but rather, form generates content.  In Stoker’s case, the character of Uncle Charlie could be born from the imagination of India, but the whole film is an expression of India, who creates her own gothic shadows by rocking basement lights as she descends into the dark.  She has the discriminating, specific focus of the camera eye and ear. “My ears hear things that others cannot hear. Faraway things.”  Dissimilar things are unified.  Stoker’s credits don’t lay themselves on top of images, but the names of Park Chan-wook’s cast and crew are climbing in the trees and crawling through the soil.

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