Coming of age films are a staple of American cinema. Both children and adults enjoy various forms of this subgenre in which they can witness the transition from innocence to awareness. Examples of these types of film range from John Hughes’ high school dramedy, The Breakfast Club (1985) to Guillermo del Torro’s dark fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). These films incorporate themes of loss of innocence, defiance of authority, and development of a more complex personal identity based on difficult decisions. The coming of age film is incredibly adaptable to fit multiple genres because mainly only the setting and the situation need to change for a completely different genre to take its place. Whereas most coming of age stories are whimsical or lighthearted in the way they grapple with existential content, some films decide not to glamorize the experience of adolescence. For instance, in the same vein as del Torro’s characteristically horrific Pan’s Labyrinth, South Korean director Park Chan-wook portrays a similarly disturbing image of a young woman’s coming of age tale in his English debut film, Stoker (2013), which incorporates the director’s penchant for vengeance fueled violence in a unique way that is not explored in many other coming of age stories. It is both complex and ambiguous in the way it portrays the protagonist through the use of unique editing techniques and visual symbolism to slowly reveal the violent and sexual psyche of India Stoker, played by Mia Wasikowska.

Stoker’s protagonist is a socially awkward, porcelain skinned young woman with jet-black hair who is confronted with the loss of her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) on her eighteenth birthday. Shortly after his death, Richard’s younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) arrives during the funeral proceedings. He stays with India at her family’s ambiguously rural estate, during which time India becomes more suspicious and more infatuated with her mysterious, and ultimately very dangerous, Uncle Charlie. Not long after he arrives the family’s maid, Mrs. McGarrick, disappears after India sees Charlie and Mrs. McGarrick arguing. India’s mother, Evie (Nicole Kidman), does not think twice about Mrs. McGarrick’s absence and completely fails to register that a concerned Auntie Gin has also disappeared at the hands of Uncle Charlie. She seems oblivious to her own selfishness as she pursues her affair with Charlie, again clueless to his and India’s growing relationship. A strange attraction between India and Charlie develops throughout the film, which grows in intensity as India discovers more incriminating facts about him.

This is one of Park’s first forays into coming of age film. His films, though violent, involve issues that are closer to Korean history than that of a young American woman’s disturbing coming of age journey. His first successful feature, J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (2000), dealt specifically with the difficult relationship between North and South Korea and how that wound is still a sensitive subject that permeates all of South Korean culture. Steve Choe discusses Korean cinema in depth in his book Sovereign Violence, where he argues that contemporary Korean culture is in tension with “conflicting discourses that have arisen due to Korea’s compressed modernization: the tension between public and private, between traditional and modern, Korean and Western, and between men and women.”[1] This conflicting set of binaries informs Park’s approach to Stoker, and can be seen in the complicated desires of each character.

However, Park Chan-wook was no stranger to Hollywood narrative structure in creating his English debut. Park and other successful Korean directors incorporated the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking into their own native works, not to criticize but to appropriate the blockbuster style, simply because it is effective in conveying narratives[2]. He used Hollywood conventions to gain international regard for the release of his “Vengeance Trilogy” in the early 2000s. It was both praised and berated for its use of excessive violence and was compared to the brutal style of American directors Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino. Though with the release of these three films, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), it was clear that Park employed extreme violence not only for shock value but to also confront the audience with the implications of violence in the name of vengeance[3]. This use of violence complicates the judgment of responsibility, guilt, and sympathy for those committing gruesome acts, which reappears in all of Park’s films. However, Stoker is Park’s first English language film, so he relied on the whole form of the film– mise-en-scene, editing, and sound design– rather than leaning on dialogue to shape the narrative of India’s coming of age journey, choosing Wentworth Miller’s script because there was less dialogue than the conventional psychological thriller[4]. This allowed Park to weave intricate symbols through his images to tell a story with more depth than one that relied heavily on exposition.

Furthermore, in reviewing the script, Park also noticed what he considered heavy-handed references to Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)[5]. As he had done with I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK, Park removed as much influence and cultural reference as he could, to allow more creative mobility for his film[6]. Some vestiges remained, however, of Hitchcock’s influence. Where Stoker focuses on the family life of a young woman with a strained relationship with her mother and an inappropriate relationship with her uncle, Hitchcock’s depictions of families, as Tag Gallagher argues, do not stray far from that. His films include absent fathers and malicious mothers that nurture tension instead of easing it, unleashing their resentful, evil children upon the world[7]. It is, of course, not Park’s style to depict characters so easily pigeonholed. Stoker takes the framework of a classic Hitchcock film and reconstructs a meticulously crafted image of adolescence that challenges notions of morality, responsibility and agency.

Stoker introduces these themes in a subtle way that does not immediately use malicious, contrived forms of violence to force implications of its use as an emotional release. In other words, Park takes small steps towards violence as a way to ease his American audience into his style of filmmaking. This slow approach to violence reflects India’s relationship with violence as well, a subject that is not common in classic coming of age cinema. Since Stoker taps into coming of age tropes, it is important to understand the context of coming of age stories in American cinema to fully appreciate the ingenuity of Park’s vision.

The classic coming of age film in American cinema often involves situations where characters are faced with questions between right and wrong, challenging authority, and taking responsibility for their actions. Even more generally, coming of age stories are usually very light hearted in the way they deal with difficult topics. Audiences are left with a hopeful tone instead of a happy or resolved ending, often because the process of growing up has yet to be completed. By the end of their journey, the protagonist has usually developed a more complex perspective of the world and their place in it.

The Breakfast Club, more specifically, includes all of these tropes. The characters are presentations of high school stereotypes. There is the bad boy, the jock, the geek, the rich girl and the loner, most of which do not normally associate with one another. Throughout the film each of the students has to decide between right and wrong, and ultimately find common ground with their fellow peers.

After viewing both The Breakfast Club and Stoker, one of the many glaring differences between them is the context in which each film tackles these issues. Stoker focuses almost exclusively on India’s complicated relationship with her budding sexuality and its connection to acts of violence. Each film presents a social interaction on either side of the spectrum of coming of age cinema. When examined in this way, one may wonder how these two films could ever find similarities. One might say it is unjust to compare two films so completely different from one another. The stark difference between the two speaks again to how versatile and malleable coming of age films can be. Park successfully appropriates these conflicts into Stoker, though in a darker, more troublesome way than is presented in any John Hughes film.

Stoker illustrates India’s internal struggle to navigate strong desires, both sexual and violent in nature. This is an interesting point of Park’s film; every instance where sexuality is explored or motioned towards, violent behavior is not far behind. Examples of this juxtaposition can be seen in India’s multiple encounters with her sexually aggressive classmate, Pitts. Instead of painting the vase at the center of the room, Pitts reveals to India his drawing of her naked body sitting at the art easel. She ignores his harassment and continues drawing over Pitts’ picture. Pitts is instantly incensed by her rejection and threatens to punch India. In their second encounter actual blood is drawn. Pitts makes suggestive insults about India’s family, and instead of ignoring the insult, India stares the boy down. Again Pitts is angered by India’s perceived defiance and again takes a full swing at her face. This time, however, India is armed with a pencil, which she raises at just right moment to stab her aggressor in between the knuckles. This violent reaction is repeated in India’s encounter with Whip in the woods.

It is in instances like these among many others in Stoker that imply that violence is commonplace in this filmic world. Examples of rampant violence are indeed common to Park’s work as a director. He has draws influence from other directors such as Sam Peckinpah by incorporating violence into all layers of society[8]. Park reinforces the notion that the environment in which one grows up affects what one perceives as normal, with the uncommon inclusion of casual violence in a coming of age film. This is mentioned, in so many words, in the opening monologue of the film, “Just like the flower cannot choose its color, we are not responsible for what have come to be.” The nature of responsibility and morality are complicated by the combination of sex and violence. In his effort to convey these themes without dialogue, Park uses both conventional and deconstructive editing techniques to convey an image of a fractured, highly disturbed young woman[9].

In what one could argue is the climax of the film, Park begins to change the tempo and style of his editing technique to signal a shift in India’s sexual relationship to violence. After seeing Uncle Charlie grope her mother’s breast, India tracks down her classmate, Whip, invites him on an impromptu date. The evening is tame and light hearted, until India bites Whip’s lip, drawing blood. The tone of the scene instantly changes, when Whip takes India’s aggression as an invitation for sex. India kicks Whip across a dirt road after a looming Uncle Charlie subdues him and then the scene cuts to a bright white tiled bathroom. This juxtaposition alone, of the dark woods and light sterile setting, helps to illustrate India’s struggle between right and wrong. True to form, however, Park does not make an easy distinction between the two. The sterility of the stark white bathroom contrasts with the vivid images of the woods to challenge judgments that the audience may associate with the actions that took place in these different environments. For instance, nature is associated with goodness and life; however, the actions of Charlie, India and Whip are sinister in comparison. On the other hand, the rigid architecture of the Stoker home, more specifically the bathroom, differs from the wholesome comfort that one would expect from a home after a traumatic experience. These subtle differences speak volumes of Park’s intricately complicated vision of morality and how a young girl might navigate these gray areas. After the dark road scene, the sequence of events is shuffled slightly out of order not only to maintain and build the suspense for the audience, but to also capture India’s psyche as she processes the events of the evening. In an intriguing development of India’s character, the shower scene begins with what seems to be India crying in the shower to then reveal that she is in fact masturbating to recollected images of Whip’s neck breaking by the hand of Uncle Charlie.

The sequence seamlessly blends into a flashback of India and Charlie of burying Whip’s body. Park includes only a few more shots of the shower to remind the viewer that this is India’s memory, before focusing on close-ups of the belt around Whip’s neck, India’s eyes wide in fear and wonder, and ultimately the snap of Whip’s neck, which is where India reaches her own sexual climax. It is instances such as these where it is difficult to discern India’s responsibility in this violent act.

In Joel Gwynne’s discussion on the sexualization of teenagers, he found that in other coming of age films they “negate the agency of young women, they also absolve women of the responsibility for their actions” and argues that “it is the parents who are ultimately held responsible for their children’s wayward behavior”[10] due to the neglect or lack of control they have over their children’s lives. Park supports this argument to a certain degree with his questions of the boundaries of morality and therefore responsibility. He confronts the tendency of an audience to judge characters’ actions with a situation where everyone is at fault to some degree, challenging the audience to decide if violence justifies violence[11]. How much responsibility should the viewer place on India as an accomplice to Whip’s death? Does it make a difference that Whip was attempting to rape her? These are the thought provoking questions Park uses to add greater depth to the predictable conversations that accompany a coming of age film.

Park forces the viewer to grapple with these questions throughout Stoker, employing a hunting motif as a mechanism to refrain from causing irreparable harm. India leans on the hunting lessons of her father to guide her through morally treacherous situations. This connection is presented to the audience through a form of non-linear editing techniques that present more of an Eisensteinian approach to meaning-making than conventional editing would allow. These flashbacks occur the most after India’s night with Whip, when she is now acutely aware of the personalities of her mother, Charlie and herself. Instead of sequences appearing out of order as they had in the first half of the film, Park imports images from a past hunting trip of India and her father where they sit in silence, waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger. This visual glitch happens in moments where India is presented with an opportunity to act, in most instances she remains still and passive, too curious to put an end to the wrong that is unfolding in front of her. The symbolism of this technique is not fully understood or realized until the end of the film when the image of India finally pulling the trigger on the bird is cut in with the image of her pulling the trigger on Uncle Charlie. This visual symbol is achieved through meticulous and precise editing to convey the completion of India’s journey to adulthood. Adulthood, in this case, is finding a balance between right and wrong for an individual who cannot help but commit acts of violence, as her father and Charlie had sensed before she realized for herself.

Park Chan-wook’s English debut Stoker may have been the Korean director’s first venture into American cinema, though he was able to retain the same complexity that reflects his years of experience as a film critic. Every frame of this film is brimming with symbolism that relates directly to Park’s interest in challenging his audiences to stretch their expectations of cinema to question their own social structures. With violence set aside, Park has brought a fresh perspective to the coming of age tome, an outside perspective that could only be achieved from a foreign director not familiar or comfortable with bubblegum depictions such as The Breakfast Club. In his exploration of India Stoker’s psyche, he constructed a meticulous web of visual symbolism that is as complex and mysterious as the human brain. In an interview with Time Magazine, Park explains that the most interesting part of the film is not knowing who the characters are and never being able to define them in simple terms[12]. In many ways this defines the experience of adolescence. While we are in the experience, we cannot quite judge it for what it is. It is only after some recollection that the importance or meaning of events is made clear. That is the experience Park Chan-wook has presented to us in Stoker.

 

* Originally written for final exit film course in March 2017

 

Footnotes

[1] Steve Choe, “Serial Sexualities and Accidental Desires,” in Sovereign Violence: Ethics and South Korean Cinema in the New Millennium (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 143.

[2] Steve Choe, “Love Your Enemies,” in Sovereign Violence: Ethics and South Korean Cinema in the New Millennium (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 80.

[3] Ibid., 106.

[4] Jacob Templin, “A Q&A with Stoker Director Park Chan-Wook,” Time, March 5, 2013, http://entertainment.time.com/2013/03/05/a-qa-with-stoker-director-park-chan-wook/.

[5] Phil Hoad, “Stoker Director Park Chan-Wook: ‘In Knowing Yourself, You Can Liberate Yourself,’” The Guardian, February 28, 2013, sec. Film, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/feb/28/stoker-director-park-chan-wook.

[6] Steve Choe, “The Invention of Romance: Park Chan-Wook’s I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK,” in Simultaneous Worlds (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 213.

[7] Tag Gallagher, “Looking Homeward — in Vain: The Family in American Film,” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 16, no. 1/2 (Winter/Spring 1983): 72.

[8] Kate E. Taylor-Jones, “Twisted Histories: Park Chan-Wook and the Legacy of Personal Trauma,” in Rising Sun, Divided Land: Japanese and South Korean Filmmakers (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 124.

[9] Ibid., 134.

[10] Joel Gwynne, “Crash-and-Burn Girls and Culpable Parenthood: Negotiating Sexulisation Discourses in Independent Cinema,” in Transgression in Anglo-American Cinema: Gender, Sex, and the Deviant Body (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 126.

[11] Choe, “Love Your Enemies,” 97.

[12] Templin, “A Q&A with Stoker Director Park Chan-Wook.”

 

Bibliography

Choe, Steve. “Love Your Enemies.” In Sovereign Violence: Ethics and South Korean Cinema in the New Millennium, 73–113. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016.

———. “Serial Sexualities and Accidental Desires.” In Sovereign Violence: Ethics and South Korean Cinema in the New Millennium, 115–54. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016.

———. “The Invention of Romance: Park Chan-Wook’s I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK.” In Simultaneous Worlds, 210–22. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Gallagher, Tag. “Looking Homeward — in Vain: The Family in American Film.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 16, no. 1/2 (Winter/Spring 1983): 71–81.

Gwynne, Joel. “Crash-and-Burn Girls and Culpable Parenthood: Negotiating Sexulisation Discourses in Independent Cinema.” In Transgression in Anglo-American Cinema: Gender, Sex, and the Deviant Body. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Hoad, Phil. “Stoker Director Park Chan-Wook: ‘In Knowing Yourself, You Can Liberate Yourself.’” The Guardian, February 28, 2013, sec. Film. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/feb/28/stoker-director-park-chan-wook.

Hughes, John. The Breakfast Club. Universal Studios, 1985.

Park, Chan-wook. Stoker. Fox Twentieth Century, 2013.

Taylor-Jones, Kate E. “Twisted Histories: Park Chan-Wook and the Legacy of Personal Trauma.” In Rising Sun, Divided Land: Japanese and South Korean Filmmakers, 123–37. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

Templin, Jacob. “A Q&A with Stoker Director Park Chan-Wook.” Time, March 5, 2013. http://entertainment.time.com/2013/03/05/a-qa-with-stoker-director-park-chan-wook/.

 

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