“She’s of age.”
“…Of age for what?”
Park Chan-wook‘s English language debut Stoker, written by Wentworth Miller, is a curious tale. It’s a sinister vision of family, isolation, and encroaching adulthood in which the delight, and the devil, is in the details. The ideas common to the coming of age film are dealt with here in a style typical to the director – that is with unusual and damaged characters and more than a streak of elegant darkness. Those familiar with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance will detect similar themes of femininity, childhood, and women who click their high heels as they walk with little interest for who is observing them. But to state that this is purely Park Chan-wook’s work would be untrue; all elements in the film combine to provide us a unique teenage catharsis.
We are introduced to our protagonist India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) through an opening scene which we will return to at the end of the film. She stands on the edge of a country road, her feet in a pair of dark high heels, hands tucked easily in the pockets of her skirt. Her gaze lands on a flower swaying in a field, but whether the bloom is red or white, or covered with blood we are unsure. This gaze gives way to a monologue that introduces us to one of the film’s central themes, heredity.
‘I’m not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father’s belt tied around my mother’s blouse and shoes which are from my uncle.’- India Stoker
By stark contrast, the next sequence drops us into another world and an altogether different version of the character we’ve just seen. On the idyllic grounds of her abundant upper-class home, barefoot and in a flowing white dress, India searches for a customary birthday gift of a pair of black and white saddle shoes, given to her every year by her father. This tableau shares similarity with Lucile Hadzihalilovic‘s Innocence, an exploration of the frightening liminal space between childhood and adulthood. It’s also impossible not to call to mind the opening moments of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by director Jaromil Jireš, the titular character plucking cherries from their stems with her teeth, clad in soft white.
Concurrently we move to a shot within the home, where a glass cloche is being placed over India’s eighteenth birthday cake. The telephone is ringing. Off-screen, we hear a scream from Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), India’s mother, signaling to us that her husband Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) is dead. This mysterious death serves as an introduction for Charlie Stoker (Mathew Goode), Richard’s brother, and India’s uncle and indeed the very embodiment of India’s encroaching adulthood and growing dangerous qualities. The household staff note that he is not wearing black. He will go on to inveigle his way into the life of the family, seducing India’s mother Evelyn and catching India in a different kind of rapturous fascination. Though in which direction this particular attraction flows, and what it means to both of them is more or less constantly up for debate until the very last scenes of the film.
As the truth about her uncle begins to unfold in a slew of stolen glances and discovered letters India commits to her patience. While the predators of the film size each other up the lonely and sharp-edged Evelyn is caught between the two, unwittingly playing the bait for both of them. After witnessing a sexually charged moment between her mother and Uncle, India uncharacteristically initiates a short and ultimately fatal relationship with a boy from her school. In an act of pseudo-sexual intercourse, India lays beneath him, clasping his hands while Charlie breaks the boy’s neck with her father’s belt. In this moment, in more than one way, something has snapped. If cult hit Ginger Snaps, made by John Fawcett, just popped into your head, it’s operating in a similar arena, wordplay aside. India’s dangerous qualities and her sexuality are now well and truly awake and intertwined. In a scene later she will masturbate in the shower recalling the event, one small death falling into the other.
The idea of India’s violence is introduced to us in the form of hunting trips with her father. At his wake, Evelyn will explain the family collection of taxidermy to her guests with some disdain. But this goes a bit further than Evelyn feeling distant from her family: “Richard was so proud of India’s hunting he stuffed everything she killed”, she sighs. Throughout the film we return on numerous occasions to flashbacks of India lying next to her father in the long grass, rifle in hand, eyes down the sight, and finger ready on the trigger. She has developed incredible patience, an eye for the tiniest details, and perhaps something else, as her father used to say: “sometimes you need to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse.” A similar sequence can be seen in Joachim Trier’s Thelma, a film about a sheltered young woman exploring her sexual awakening and the resulting supernatural abilities. Thelma is out in the woods hunting with her father and, in a sinister frame, we see her staring away into the trees while her father aims the gun at her back, considering a terrible action.
As expressed by the monologue at the beginning, the film has a definite feeling about heredity and the influence that a family can have on a person. At not too great a leap Hereditary deals with this idea in both the plane of psychology and the concept of being cursed. The treatment in Stoker is more benevolent to the central character. Even if some dark genetic thread has run from Charlie to India, even though her family is damaged and distant, it serves her ultimately because it has made her a true expression of who she is. An interesting take on the idea of family curses, or indeed madness running in families. These ideas are seldom so empowering to the characters they affect.
Another film in this vein is Julia Ducournau’s Raw, in which a young veterinary student’s sexuality emerges through cannibalism and fixation for raw meat; the main character’s mother also shared a similar obsession, a truth made evident when her husband reveals his scarred body to his daughter. The flaw has carried quite literally down the bloodline. The feeling on the part of a father figure that his daughter’s metamorphoses from a girl into a woman is somehow deadly is present in all these films.
The eye of Chung-hoon Chung, the cinematographer responsible for Sympathy for Lady Vengeance as well as several other of Park Chan-wook’s films frames the picture we see. The frame itself instills unease in its constant shift. Through this lens, we observe the importance of objects, colors, and spaces as well as people. The sun is almost too bright, the darkness too rich. In Evelyn’s bedroom, the walls are a deep shade of red and the space is filled with dark-leaved plants, communicating a longing for life and desire. Playgrounds and slides filmed in the dark. Staircases and piano stools become arenas of great power struggle. Wine shared at a dinner table transmutes into the family blood itself. Shoes, sunglasses, striped boxes of ice-cream, bright yellow umbrellas, belts… Garden shears. The props themselves conjure a magic foreboding.
Richard understood something about his daughter, the way he understood it about his brother. But his hunting trips only succeeded in making her more effective in her achieving her particular freedom. Only in the final act does India commit to pulling the trigger- it is the first time we hear a gunshot in the film, and even in her new stiletto heels she doesn’t wobble an inch. Her patience and an incredible eye for the patterns of things pay off, her aim is impeccable.