Kim Ji-woon’s Hollywood debut, The Last Stand, created virtually no buzz and vanished from London screens within a couple of weeks of opening. Stoker, having created some positive vibes at Sundance, played to a packed house at a preview screening at the BFI on 27 February before it has its main UK opening on 1 March. It’s had extensive advertising on the London Underground and now on TV – certainly a much bigger promotional budget than the advertisement on an occasional double decker bus that The Last Stand benefited from. Is all the publicity effort worth it?
It’s a qualified yes. On the downside, characterisation and background explanations are a bit sketchy. Why is the relationship between mother and daughter is so cold? Why is the mother so welcoming towards this myserious uncle? Perhaps the sketchiness is meant to keep us intrigued, to make us want to think. But there’s more. Do we understand how the creepy Uncle Charlie came to be blessed with powers that enable him always miraculously to be at the right place at the right time? Why, other than for creepy effect, in an otherwise immaculately appointed house, the freezer is a minute’s walk away in a dark, cobwebbed cellar? How the hunting trophies are so beautifully preserved when the weapon used to kill the unfortunate creatures makes such a mess? What mysterious transgenerational bond can exist between niece and uncle which enables a supposedly untutored musician and a half competent pianist to improvise a Philip Glass duet spontaneously between them? Or makes the niece repeat her uncle’s physical tic of performing supine star-jumps when under psychological pressure? There are too many such questions left hanging and unanswerable to satisfy the literal mind. Asking the audience to suspend disbelief is fine, but when there are so many worrying loose ends the thing starts to unravel. I don’t remember coming out of any other of Park’s movies wondering what it was all about. But with Stoker too much is left to the imagination – so much ellipsis and lacuna that there’s not much left.
On the plus side, visually, the colours and brooding atmosphere in the house are perfect. If feels as if Park is paying tribute to Kim Ji-woon’s Tale of Two Sisters, while the shot from the field looking up at the road recalls Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder. Throughout the film one is constantly being amazed by the virtuosity of the production design, camerawork and lighting. The dissolve from red hair to green cornfield is particularly astonishing. If you are of the view that ars est celare artem you might find all this distracting, but it certainly satisfies one’s aesthetic sensibilities when other aspects of the filmgoing experience let you down. That’s not to say that there aren’t some enjoyable elements outside of the visuals. The bookending of the film with scenes in the cornfield gives a sense of wholeness to the narrative which would not otherwise be there, while some might enjoy the meticulous care with which the daughter sharpens her pencils, and the use to which she puts them.
Of course, there can be no complaints with the acting. Kudos, too, to the team for getting Philip Glass to compose a piano duet especially for the production. It’s not a bad first outing for Park in Hollywood, but let’s hope that next time he’s allowed to use his own script.
Park Chan-wook’s Stoker is released on 1 March 2013.