Interview: Park Chan-wook - Korean director on his Hitchcockian thriller Stoker
Latest film from director of Oldboy stars Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman
Wherever Park Chan-wook goes, violence and poetry follow in his wake. Eddie Harrison speaks to the Korean director about Stoker, his much-anticipated new thriller and first foray into the English language.
The Korean director of Oldboy turned down Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and The Evil Dead remake to direct Stoker, which was written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller. Taken from the annual Black List of the best, unproduced scripts and produced by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free company, the result is an intense Gothic thriller which gets its UK premiere at the 2013 Glasgow Film Festival.
‘The films I made in Korea were not very talky, and because I’m not used to the English language, I didn’t want to make something which depended on dialogue,’ says Chan-wook. ‘What I liked about Wentworth Miller’s script was that it had space for me to breathe my own life into it, to bring my own visual sense.’
Played by Mia Wasikowska, India Stoker is a teenage girl mourning the tragic death of her father (Dermot Mulroney). At his funeral, India and her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) encounter their mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who charms his way into the household, but arouses the young girl’s suspicions. The premise recalls the melodramatic themes of Gothic literature, but also the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and specifically the character of Uncle Charlie, played by Joseph Cotton in his 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt.
‘Originally, I wanted to change both of the names, Stoker and Uncle Charlie, because I felt they might be too well recognized,’ says Chan-wook, who was inspired to become a director after viewing Hitchcock’s Vertigo. ‘And yet while I never set out to be a filmmaker like Hitchcock, I can’t help having traces of his influence in my work. So I went the other way and decided to make my film consciously Hitchcockian. Casting Matthew Goode as Uncle Charlie fitted in with that, as there’s a quality about him that reminded me of Norman Bates in Psycho, a balance between being both child-like and potentially evil.’
The palpable suspense in Stoker comes from India’s attempts to uncover Uncle Charlie’s motives, and Chan-wook was able to call on the talents of two of Hollywood’s most coveted actresses to rack up the tension.
‘For India, I wanted a girl who was timeless, who could have come from days gone by; Mia has that. If you look at the other roles she’s played, like Jane Eyre or Alice in Wonderland, you see that other directors recognize this classical quality too. She’s girlish, and you can see how she internalizes a lot of emotion, which is very important about her character,’ says Chan-wook. ‘Nicole’s character Evie initially seems like a strong and oppressive mother, but as the journey of the film progresses, you begin to see that she’s a different kind of species, a different breed of person from the others. She’s fragile even though she wants to appear strong, and Nicole brought these qualities.’
Filmed in Nashville Tennessee, Stoker relocates the macabre feel of Chan-wook’s celebrated Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance) to the US, with the director’s regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon creating a lush, beautiful sheen that belies the dark, twisted motivations of the characters. Lauded for his soundtrack for Drive, Clint Mansell contributes a dramatic score, but it’s a collaboration between Chan-wook and Phillip Glass that creates Stoker’s most striking scene; a piano duet between India and Uncle Charlie. Like the corridor battle in Oldboy, it’s a moment that transcends the story to create a weird, disturbing poetry of its own.
‘The piano scene was in the original script, but I could immediately see an opportunity for me. Rather than take a written piece of music from an old master, I wanted to do something entirely new, so I approached Phillip Glass. I’m a long term fan, not just of his major work, but for his less known scores, like the one he did for a film some-people might class as a B-movie, the horror film Candyman.’
‘For me, this scene is not a piano performance, it’s a metaphor for sexual intercourse, and because it’s between a teenager and her uncle, it’s incestuous. Phillip told me he has a four-hand piano piece he had written as a husband and wife duet, and where the husband has to put his arm around his wife in order to play the correct notes. So if you look at the postures from Mia and Matthew, the way they move, you can see these moments of ecstasy, the roused emotion of a sexual act. At that moment, the audience can imagine that India’s uncle might be the fantasy of a young girl, or some kind of phantom…’
Stoker screens at Glasgow Film Festival, Sat 16 Feb and Sun 17 Feb and is on general release from Fri 1 Mar.