Director Park Chan-wook's distinctive way of making dark, violent and emotionally charged movies with style has thankfully not been lost in translation during the process of completing his first Hollywood thriller, Stoker. Although this film is Park's first English language movie, he has continued with his philosophy of elegantly depicting cruelty, destruction and revenge, combined with lyrical beauty and powerful metaphorical visuals. This formula earned him a strong reputation around the world following the success of Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Thirst.
With Stoker, Park examines the deeply confusing and eerie world of the Stoker family. Daughter India (Mia Wasikowska), mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) struggle to keep a lid on their inner demons as their relationships intensify following the death of Richard Stoker (India's father), who is tragically killed in a car accident.
Eighteen-year-old India finds herself making a disturbing transition from a disenchanted teenager into a confident young woman, determined to take control of her own destiny, under the corrupting influence of Charlie. After persuading her mother to let him stay at the family home (at Richard's funeral), Charlie becomes India's catalyst of change, awakening inappropriate and sinister urges inside of her, which take her by surprise.
Park was drawn towards directing this movie, written by Wentworth Miller (Michael Scofield from Prison Break) because of its constant suffocating tension, which feels like something is about to boil over at any moment. The confined space in which the Stokers live becomes a universe in itself and Park had fun playing a psychological game with the audience's perception of right and wrong, and the likeability of the characters.
"I was determined to make sure the action was not predictable for the audience, to keep them guessing over whether good or evil would prevail in the end,” says Park.
Although the plot of the film has its flaws, technically, it is very well crafted. When it came to building tension in the film, Park took inspiration from some of his favourites filmmakers, such as Alfred Hitchcock, David Cronenberg, David Lynch and Brian De Palma.
He first became interested in directing after watching Hitchcock's claustrophobic masterpiece Vertigo. He was instantly attracted to the film's unconventional and tautly woven love story, which he has also integrated into this movie.
"With some of Hitchcock's films, I like the notion of pursuing something that you can't quite catch,” says Park. “I enjoy the process of the pursuit – when you think you have it, suddenly it slips through your fingers. That kind of quality is very appealing and that's what I tried to reflect within the relationships of the three main characters."
Charlie spearheads this game through his carefully planned seduction of India and her emotionally unstable mother. However, in time, he discovers that India is a strong match for his tactics, despite being infatuated with him.
Park says that Wasikowska possesses the special qualities required to perform as the innocent temptress in this central role because she is naturally very introverted and is reserved about expressing her feelings, making it hard to read what goes on in her mind.
"This trait was perfect for the role," adds Park. "Through restrained expression, Mia creates a very mysterious mood and atmosphere but when she does speak, her words strike a strong level of resonance."
At the beginning of the movie, India says, “Just as a flower does not choose its colour, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. Only once you realise this do you become free. And to become adult, is to become free.” Park says he wanted the audience to think long and hard about how to interpret the meaning behind these words.
"It certainly raises some interesting questions, such as: Is evil in the blood? Or is she making an excuse for the way she feels? Later in the movie, this statement makes the audience wonder what she is truly thinking. Perhaps this is her way of avoiding responsibility for her violent actions? She could be saying, 'Well, it's in the genes, so it's not really my fault'."
One of the most powerful and pivotal scenes in the movie involved India playing the piano together with Charlie – the climatic moment when he possesses her spirit completely with his own intoxicating evil. This hypnotising piece of music was written specifically for the film by trailblazing contemporary composer Philip Glass. Surprisingly, Wasikowska had never played the piano before this film and took a three-month crash course to prepare. In fact, she learnt this piece on the day.
"The scene took one whole day to shoot, even though it had no lines," recalls Wasikowska. 'It's a powerful and emotional piece of music. I let it wash over me and that was the scene, which was the best day of filming."
This is an understatement of her performance, which reveals her true talent in being able to let herself get lost in the moment. During this sequence, India looks like she suddenly becomes physically, mentally, sexually and spiritually liberated for the first time, thanks to Charlie's captivating influence. It plays a key role in her coming of age and being more sure of herself.
Wasikowska admits that she is attracted to darker roles like this, featuring a troubled and complicated character, such as Sophie from In Treatment.
"They are more interesting than playing good girls because from an acting standpoint, performing as somebody radically different can allow you to express new emotions and learn something fresh about yourself,” says Wasikowska. “I like movies that make the audience question their own morals. When I read a script, if effects me on this level, I presume it will do the same to the viewers."
Despite India's troubled nature, Wasikowska also sympathises with parts of her character.
"India is very closed up, isolated and alone in her own world, which I understand in parts, but a large part of her make-up is a mystery. I can see why she wants to keep herself alone and cut off from people, to maintain control, but not to the extent of suppressing your true self.
"It was a challenge finding the right balance between keeping her restrained and revealing what she really thinks at the appropriate time, to keep her story arc on track and the audience engaged – so they kept liking and trusting her, despite her flaws."
Just like India, Wasikowska also feels in control now of her own destiny. In fact, she is very savvy about her future within the film industry. Instead of wanting to become a big star with huge box office success, she is more interested in taking on future roles that will challenge her personally.
Right now, she appears to be in high demand by some of the most imaginative filmmakers in the world. In 2011, she starred in the lead role of Gus Van Sant's Restless, playing 'Annabel', a terminally ill girl who falls in love with a death-obsessed teenage boy. She also recently completed production on Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, alongside Tilda Swinton. It focuses on two vampires whose love has endured over the course of several centuries.
This year she has also worked on John Curran's Australian film Tracks. Additionally, she will also star in Carol, with Cate Blanchett, and Crimson Peak, directed by Guillermo del Toro.
As for Park, during the interview, he constantly played with an Elmore Leornard novel in his hands, which he picked up from the library as soon as he entered the room. He admits to being a huge fan of the late author's books that have been transformed into movies, such as Get Shorty and Jackie Brown. So, perhaps the mysterious Park is also considering the possibility of converting one of Leonard's novels into a psychological thriller in the near future. We will have to wait and see.
Thursday 23 April, 9:35pm on SBS World Movies
Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller, Mystery
Director: Chan-wook Park
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Jacki Weaver, Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Goode
What's it about?
Following the death of her father, India Stoker (Wasikowska) meets her charismatic uncle (Goode), whom she never knew existed. When he moves in to comfort India and her mother, the two find that the newest member of their family might actually be their worst nightmare. The first English language film from cult South Korean director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, The Handmaiden).