House of secrets: Korea's Park Chan-wook makes English-language debut with moody and mysterious 'Stoker'

The cast were out in force at January’s Sundance Film Festival for the world premiere of Korean director Park Chan-wook’s first English-language film, the chilling, visually masterful Stoker, which Fox Searchlight releases on March 1.

“It’s the first film we saw for Sundance, the first film we chose,” announced Festival director John Cooper in his introduction to the movie.

Michael Corrigan, who co-produced the thriller with Tony and Ridley Scott, added,
“It takes a great artist like Park Chan-wook to create this otherworldly universe.”

Without giving too much away, Stoker centers on a young girl, India (Mia Wasikowska), who, after the death of her father, encounters a mysterious uncle (Matthew Goode) who moves into the house with her and her emotionally cold and fragile mother (Nicole Kidman). An aunt played by Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver also comes to visit the dream world of India’s home but leaves with a dangerous secret.

Park has become a leading figure in Korean cinema, especially with his Vengeance trilogy. He didn’t consider a filmmaking career until he was at Sogang University studying philosophy. He discovered Alfred Hitchcock and became a film critic before taking the directing helm.

Speaking through a translator during a Q&A before a capacity audience at the Eccles Theatre in Park City, Utah, the director noted, “Just like every other film I have made before, the world where the story takes place is a world very much of its own. The script is a very archetypal story. This kind of story, regardless of what country it comes from, you can understand.”

It was the “simplicity and the structure” of the original script by actor Wentworth Miller (TV’s “Prison Break”) that attracted Park. “The simplicity left space for me to bring something of my own… The script in its first-draft form came to me and all I did was tidy up small details. The biggest change was that I tried to emphasize the coming-of-age story. The crosscut sequences weren’t decided later in the editing suite—they were carefully planned right from the script development stage. The structure was very much intended to be multiple strands taking place at different times.”

Asked what drew them to the story, the cast members were unanimous that it was the chance to work with Park. Goode jokingly added, “What was the strongest draw for me was Colin Firth vacating the role! Then I had a Skype chat with director Park and we really connected. I also thought it was a brilliant script.”

“It was amazing,” Kidman declared. “His filmmaking process is very precise and he already had constructed the scenes. That’s a wonderful thing for an actor, to come along and so much of your work is done. Every single thing was decided by director Park. I love working with that sort of detail. It is a beautiful form of filmmaking—everything is so exquisitely constructed.”

“When we were rehearsing, we were each given an enormous book,” added Goode. “It was pretty much every shot of the film, pre-drawn.”

This detailed technique creates layers of symbolic meaning in a visually gorgeous world. In some ways, it is like opening the pages of a fairytale with overtones of Hitchcock and gothic horror. Park is also a master at using all the senses—for example, in a scene in which India is lying on her bed surrounded by boxes of the shoes she has worn during each year of her growing up, we hear sound effects that bring a layer of nostalgia for childhood and depict the passing of time.

“There wasn’t any conscious decision to make this a Hitchcockian film,” Park stated. “I wanted to get away from that, although I didn’t want to get rid of anything that was already in the script. Shadow of a Doubt was perhaps an influence and a little bit by Psycho as well. Matthew reminds me a bit of Anthony Perkins. After all, Hitchcock was the director that influenced me to make the decision to become a filmmaker.”

“I can hear what other people can’t hear, see what others can’t see,” India tells the audience at the beginning of the film. Through this commentary and the opening sequence’s montage of striking imagery and visual clues to later events in the story, we are drawn into the enclosed world of her rite of passage.

Wasikowska, best known as the star of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, is a dystopian Alice in Park’s own wonderland, and does a fine job of carrying us with her through the story. Family bonds, symbolized by the items of clothing that get passed from father or uncle or mother to daughter, are one of the themes as the young girl integrates her own persona. Kidman brings a fragile uneasiness that keeps us nicely off-balance in each scene she appears in, providing a strong counterpoint in the tense mother/daughter scenes.

The last word is with director Park. “I hope you enjoy this dream as much as I enjoyed dreaming it up.”