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Hamming it with Hitchcock

OUT NOW! Chan-wook's STOKER has all the trappings of any good Hitchcock thriller: but hardly transcends.

Following on the heels of a film about the master himself (Hitchcock) and a couple that nipped more discreetly at the fountain of Hitchcockian reference (Side Effects, Mama), this month sees the release of two big-name movies inclined to dip deeper into those well-stocked waters.

Hitchcock liked to quote himself, and referential exchange can be fun. There are enough pennies in this well for any number of directors (Spielberg, Scorsese etc.) to help themselves to dolly zooms or cross-cut editing, psychologically abused characters or metaphorically charged symbols (birds, keys, stairs). A darling of Cannes (2004 Grand Prix for Oldboy) and Venice (2005 CinemAvvenire for Sympathy of Lady Vengeance), South Korean director Park Chan-wook is on record as a Hitchcock fan: technically innovative, not averse to the odd camp moment and obsessed with vengeance narratives.

These and other influences in plot and pace are evident in Stoker, Park’s first English-language film. The story is of India (a searing Mia Wasikowska) who comes of age suddenly on her 18th birthday when she learns that her father has died in a mysterious car accident. The unknown, enigmatic Uncle Charlie (Anthony Perkins lookalike Mathew Goode) arrives for the funeral and begins to insinuate himself first with India’s reviled mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and then with India herself.

As she grows into vengeful awareness of adulthood, India negotiates a world of badly lit cellars, stuffed birds and domineering older women whilst her burgeoning sexuality takes a baptismal bath in a cross-cut shower scene. And cue: audience mutterings of “Psycho” and “Shadow of a Doubt”.

Does Stoker transcend the sum of these allusions? It does, mainly by inviting comparison to highlight difference. Hitchcock’s female heroines are flawed. But their failings are balanced by strengths and captured by a multi-trick camera that tolerates, even welcomes, the ambivalence of the male gaze. Park’s cinematographic mise-en-scène (created by long-time collaborator Chung-hoon Chung) sets up a very different kind of female protagonist, using an unambiguous spread of lavishly aestheticised visual and aural impressions to render states of mental imbalance as they hone themselves to one objective: that of single-minded revenge. 

Stoker | Directed by Park Chan-wook (UK, USA 2013) with Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Mia Wasikowski. Starts May 9