Park Chan-Wook is the man behind the Vengeance trilogy, characterised by its vicious violence and, shall we say, unhappy characters – anyone who’s seen Oldboy (and the scene in which the lead actor eats a live squid in particular) can vouch for its myriad desperate souls.
So when meeting the man in question to chat about his new movie, Stoker, a sinister Hitchcockian family mystery that features a roster of Aussie talent including Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska, TNT is expecting to be intimidated.
For him to be physically imposing maybe, or have a veiled threat lurking behind his eyes, perhaps … but how wrong could we be?
Very, it turns out, as director Park is a warm, gregarious and thoroughly charming bloke, who speaks conscientiously about his new movie, and with a passion derived from being an all-out film fanatic.
Stoker, Park’s ninth film, is his first foray into Hollywood, and his first English language flick to boot. So why choose to make the move Statewards now, and why with this movie?
“My first impression was how quiet the script was and how it was not dialogue based – that was an advantage as my first English language film,” Park says of the screenplay written by Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller, but shopped to agents under a pseudonym.
“But also how quietly frightening it was. To be quiet and frightening is rare to come across.”
Stoker tells of the titular family, comprising recently widowed mother Evie (Kidman), who’s dousing her grief in wine, and her estranged daughter India (Wasikowska).
Their lives are thrown into disarray by the arrival of the mysterious Uncle Charlie (a deliciously creepy Matthew Goode), brother to the six-foot-under family head.
Moving into the remote family homestead, Charlie’s relationships with both Evie and India develop in ways they shouldn’t, and with unexpected results.
Violence bubbles to the fore while India’s sexuality blossoms with her 18th birthday imminent.
Life, for the Stokers, won’t be quite the same again. It’s a story that delves into murder, incest, rape and more as it unfolds so, for those familiar with Park’s work, it is easy to see why the script appealed.
Park began making movies in the early Nineties but it wasn’t until 2000’s JSA: Joint Security Area that he hit paydirt, critically and commercially.
Inspired by a love of film – he’s worked variously as an art and film critic in his native South Korea – and of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo especially, he embarked on his Vengeance trilogy – 2002’s Sympathy For Mr Vengeance and 2005’s Lady Vengeance, as well as the 2003 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix-winning global smash Oldboy, in which a man is released back into the world after 20 years of unexplained solitary captivity and sets about finding out who was responsible for his incarceration and why.
Oldboy, highly trumpeted by Quentin Tarantino among others, shares many similar thematic elements with Stoker – revenge, shady family relationships and especially Park’s stylised approach that sees him utilise visual motifs and sound as storytelling devices – and it was these that Park had set about working into the script once he signed on.
“I wanted the script to be one I could direct and make into my own,” he says, considering his words and responses with precision.
“This process of tailoring the script was an imperative one and, because it’s an American film, I made sure there was nothing wrong with what I had written.
“I would write in Korean and then translate back into English and would then make sure with everyone – the cast, my wife – that due to the differences in language and custom nothing was inappropriate.”
The film has a gothic and yet timeless look despite being set in the contemporary US, and the cast comprised a decidedly Aussie contingent, too, with Wasikowska and Kidman joined by Animal Kingdom’s Jackie Weaver as Aunt Gwinnie, a family member who suspects Charlie’s intentions are less than admirable.
Despite another sterling performance by Kidman, it is Wasikowska who shines most, with yet another career milestone as the precocious India.
“She’s an actress who’s not into overtly big expression,” Park says of the diminutive Canberra-born 23-year old.
“She is restrained and that was the kind of actress needed to play the role.
“She appears quite closed off and there is a mystery about her, and she made a conscious decision only to show emotion when needed.
“Through this minimal approach she expressed something much bigger.”
And what did he make of Kidman, an actress to whom he openly refers to as “a living legend”?
“I thought she could have been very arrogant or look down on other people and want to do things her own way,” he admits.
“I didn’t know what to expect. But she was nothing like that.”
Collaborative, painstaking and patient, Kidman was a director’s dream, Park says.
“Her attitude was that she was going to set an example and she thought it was her job to satisfy the director, nothing more and nothing less.”
Moving across the Pacific saw Park forced to adapt to new approaches and processes.
He had to shoot in 40 days as opposed to the 100 he’d taken for his last feature, the vampire film Thirst, and was surprised to discover that Hollywood did not, as a rule, storyboard its movies, as this was a meticulous approach he himself had adopted after a producer told him it was how it was done in America.
Despite these differences, Stoker is a hybrid in many ways: it’s a distinctly US-set film, but one that displays Park’s now trademark visual and aural flourishes – a sequence where India rolls hard boiled eggs on the kitchen table sees the sound of cracking shells slowly build until it dominates the score, in classic ‘Park’ menacing fashion.
Up next, he’s producing fellow South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho’s sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans and Jamie Bell – it’s The Host director Bong’s English language debut – before returning home.
His relationship with Hollywood is but a nascent one, but one both will benefit from – he gets a new audience for his work and Hollywood’s movie gene pool a shot in the arm. And hopefully, he can continue his Down Under ties, too.
Stoker is out March 1 through Twentieth Century Fox. Turn to P24 for our review of the film.
Photos: Getty; Macall Polay; Tartan Films