Stoker – Park Chan-Wook and his ode to Hitchcock. (Sydney FF Film Review)

Stoker is currently showing at the Sydney Film Festival.

Shadow of a Doubt is one of Hitchcock masterpieces around the theme of the double. Made in 1943, it’s fitting to have a tribute to this mighty film seventy years later by a brilliant director whose viewing of Vertigo in his youth became the launching point and perpetual inspiration for his life of film making to date. Shadow of a Doubt needed a double film made about it, as its entire premise is the double.  Stoker is that film.

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The doubles are instantly recognizable – Uncle Charlie is back, but this time his focus is revenge, not money, although he is still an obsessive control freak. His connection to his niece is as strong and as unhealthy as ever. As in Shadow of a Doubt, suitcases contain hidden secrets, staircases are the journey to knowledge or the possibility of falling to ones death, India’s connection to her Uncle as a source of relief and safety, and the family as a strange awkward place where the mother is trapped by domesticity and the father has a strange fixation with death.  Ideas hinted at in Shadow of a Doubt become fully blown, such as the possibility of India evoking her uncles persona and the question of “out there” verses “in here” is not tied up with the pretty bow that Hitchcock places on Charlies future.

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Park Chan-Wook is a director who, like Hitchcock is obsessed with lighting and the image therefore he must have had a wonderful time making the film. His pleasure is palpable,  freely evoking Hitchcock with tilted swaying lights, conversations between people cut off by walls, train tracks, cars in garages, stuffed birds, fruit cellars, showers evoking murder and camera angles peeping up at protagonists from the other end of long dining tables.  The dinner table is an important place where many unspoken things are mentioned.  India will receive her first drink at the dinner table at the hand of her uncle like Charlie . When Uncle Charlie says to his niece, “Do you know, if you ripped the fronts of house you’d find swine,” Stoker is the ripping off the front of the house, to reveal the dirt beneath.  This is deliciously portrayed by repeated close-ups of Lynchian bugs, where a beetle can represent the hard work of slaughter and the sensual crawl of spider climbs the leg and disappears into the black of a skirt covering parted legs representing budding sexuality.  These shots all work together to build the same fear and suspense Hitchcock so brilliantly portrayed seventy years ago. A special mention has to go to the “shower scene” to see what Park does with the Hitchcock references there.  Confession time – I thought that was masterful.

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When Hitchcock made Shadow of a Doubt, Charlies father, while warm-hearted and well-meaning was an ineffective man, virtually absent as a strong role model for the family.  Chan-Wook eliminates the father completely, enhancing the Freudian connection between the young girl becoming a woman and her attraction to a father figure.  In Stoker, the father is never missing however and in many ways he is more present than Hitchcock’s insipid father. The dead father is in every lift of an ice chest, under a bed, marching down the hall to the tune of the metronome. It is her Father that says to India “Sometimes you need to do something bad to stop yourself from doing something worse.” It is India’s father who held her most close as she grew up and it is India’s father who gives her the shoes that indicate how she is to relate to the world and who she is meant to be in the world.

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A secondary connection is the vampire one, particularly evoked through the family surname.  The film is never a “Dracula” movie, but the ode to the style (are there enough Dracula films that it can be called its own genre now?) enhances the films devotion to Gothic imagery that sits comfortably side by side with the Hitchcockian references. The films promotional image, with India standing between her mother and her uncle as the three look into the lens is obviously its own evocation of American Gothic by Grant Wood, indicating the influence of this style of image. Most of India’s clothing will represent this famous painting as well. References to blood and connection through blood occur throughout Wentworth Millers script. Chan-Wook’s previous film to Stoker, Thirst, Is a vampire film and in many ways Stoker is a close relative. The is she/isn’t she drive of the script, the Gothic imagery and the close connection to Shadow of a Doubt leave the viewer wondering all the way through about India and this strange connection she has with the dead and with dead things. When push literally comes to shove, it is the sharp bite of her pencil that will draw blood rather than her mouth – writing rather than speaking – the pen is mightier than the sword.

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Image is not just altered in sets and shots.  The three great Australian actresses, Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Jacki Weaver are all slightly tainted by the directors brush, rising admirably to their roles, always completely convincing as upper class Midwestern Americans. Equally so is Matthew Goode.  He and Wasikowska have the same odd milky eyes. That this all American family is portrayed by people from another country (including the director) adds to the surreal “outside  versus inside” of the film.

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If my review feels a bit like a study, it’s true – this is the kind of film that begs for referencing and film snobbery rather than being an entertaining watch. It’s very lovely to look at, but it might be just a little preoccupied with its allusions and a little lacking for emotional punch. My recommendation is to watch Shadow of a doubt (below I’ve added the You Tube link) and then go and see the film. You will have a deeper, more fun experience if you do.

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