Stoker (Park Chan-wook, US: 2012)

Stoker, Director Park’s first foray into directing an English language film, is an intense Oedipal drama which although making a number of intertextual visual references to Bram Stoker’s seminal Dracula (the asylum from which Charlie escape, the spiders that climb up India’s body), eschews the supernatural and preternatural worlds and instead instead focuses in on the fragility of the human condition through an interrogation into the functioning of the familial unit. As in his earlier female-centered Gothic dramas, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨: 2005)   and I’m a Cyborg, but that’s OK (싸이보그지만 괜찮아: 2006), Director Park is concerned with exploring female subjectivity as contained and constrained by patriarchy.

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At the center of the dysfunctional family unit in Stoker is the sullen and emotionally distanced India (Mia Wasikowska) who when the film begins is in mourning for the sudden loss of her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), and in constant war with her glamorous mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) who she perceives as not grieving sufficiently. Into this fraught mother-child dyad, comes a substitute father figure in the form of Richard’s brother, Charles (Matthew Goode), completing the oedipal triangle of mommy-daddy-me. With his debonair charm and worldly ways, Charles soon becomes an object of desire for both women, and the stage is set for a bitter conflict which can only be resolved through death in order for India to complete and resolve her oedipal complex. Stoker is a paradigmatic example of pop-psychoanalysis and the narrative navigates Freud’s drama of desire and death within the familial unit. While the resolution might be unconventional vis-à-vis the oedipal complex,  the playing out of the Oedipal conflict is not.

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As to be expected, Director Park’s strong aesthetic and artistic sensibilities are evident and he creates a beautiful and timeless canvas which frames the drama. However, the script by Wentworth Miller, is cliched and I found Mia Wasikowska as the sullen teenager transiting to adulthood as unconvincing. This is partly because  she looks too old to be a teenage girl on the verge of adulthood (Wasikowska was in fact 23 during the filming).

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Compared to similar horror film heroines,  Brigitte Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins) in Gingersnaps (John Fawcett, Canada: 2000),  Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) in Heathers (Michael Lehmann, US: 1988), who are obsessed also obsessed with death and have difficulty in dealing with the transitions into adulthood,  India is a one-dimensional figure as played by Wasikowska, whose entrance into womanhood is signaled by a scene of masturbation in the shower while she fantasizes about Charlie and the ‘primal scene’, after which she symbolically takes her mother’s place by wearing  the same type of glamorous clothes as her mother rather than the drab, figure concealing costume of a sexually repressed teenager. Swapping the unconventional narrative and genre conventions of South Korean cinema, Director Park constructs an all too conventional narrative with an over-codified female lead, who is the object of patriarchal fears and desires, as signaled by the first low-angled close up shot of India which fragments the threatening female body and thus disavows the possibility of castration through the substitution of the fetish – here shoes function as the fetish throughout, with the sneakers that India receives on her birthday (which she thinks are a present from her father, rather than her Uncle) being symbolically exchanged for high-heels when she enters into adulthood.

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The dark threatening tones of the opening scene construct a mise-en-scene of danger and disavowal, containing a threat of death (castration), which will be fulfilled towards the narrative’s conclusion. To successfully navigate the Oedipus complex, the girl-child needs to separate from the mother (the original love object in both Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis) and go from desiring to have her father’s child to desiring father-substitutes thus according with the incest injunction and the needs of bourgeois society. India’s separation from the symbolic father, Charlie, is done using the tools that her real father taught her, while her separation from her mother takes the form of imitating the mother – the frequent mirroring of shots framing mother and then daughter in the same position and taken at the same angle) – before the act of vengeance in which the daughter becomes the mother.

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It is certainly possible, to view India as the typical unreliable Gothic heroine  whose point-of-view is compromised by her fantasies and repressed desires. This is suggested by offering more than one version of the death of a young man who attempts to rape (or does he?) India and who is murdered by Charlie (or is he? does this ever in fact take place?). As such the narrative becomes one which is located in the pre-Oedipal or Lacan’s imaginary (the world of images and  narcissism), and is a playing out of childish fantasies and wish-fulfillment rather than a staging of the Oedipal complex. While such a reading is perhaps more productive, it does not alter the fact that Stoker is a conventional replaying of normative heterosexuality and the dictates of compulsory femininity. After all if the killing of Charlies, as the substitute father-figure, is just a fantasy, then patriarchal order is restored.  However, even if the murder is a reality within the diegetic world, it says more about male fears and desires than female subjectivity thereby conforming to the dictates of the dominant patriarchal ideology that informs so much of US cinema.

In conclusion, I found the film to be an uncomfortable fit with Director Park’s oeuvre and one of his least challenging works. Having said this, I realise that I am at odds with critics and audiences in the West who have raved about Stoker. Stoker is beautifully composed as one would expect of a Park Chan-wook film, but in the final analysis, just too Americanized and conventional for this viewer.  However, Director Park remains one of my favourite directors and his Sympathy for Mr Vengeance ( 복수는 나의 것: 2002) remains an uncompromising cinematic tour-de-force. I preferred the supernatural and preternatural Gothic of his previous film, Thirst, rather than the domestic Gothic of Stoker.

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