Park Chan-wook’s buzzy “Stoker” opens the Korean Film Festival tonight

March 1, 2013

This weekend, the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries will kick off the seventh edition of the increasingly popular Korean Film Festival. Running through April 21, this year’s festival will, for the first time, take place at three separate venues, including the six-month-old Angelika Film Center and the AFI Silver Theatre, in addition to the Freer’s venerable Meyer auditorium. That's not the only first.

Teenage India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) develops an infatuation with her mysterious uncle (Matthew Goode) when he moves in after the death of India's father in the English-language debut of Korean director Park Chan-wook. (Macall Polay/Fox Searchlight)
Teenage India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) develops an infatuation with her mysterious uncle (Matthew Goode) when he moves in after the death of India's father in the English-language debut of Korean director Park Chan-wook. (Macall Polay/Fox Searchlight)

The festival opens with a bang-bang, offering two free screenings of “Stoker” on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Freer. The highly anticipated English-language debut of hot filmmaker Park Chan-wook (best known stateside for the so-called revenge trilogy of “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance”), this psychological thriller starring Nicole Kidman won’t hit commercial theaters until March 15. In addition to Park’s “Stoker,” the festival will feature a mini-retrospective of the director’s earlier work, including the trilogy and other films not previously seen in Washington. Park will host a short Q&A following Saturday’s “Stoker” screening.

I spoke to Park, through an interpreter, about how “Stoker” is a continuation of — and a departure from — his body of work, which has dealt broadly with themes of revenge, redemption, morality and the guilty conscience.

For one thing, “Stoker” is the first script Park did not write himself. The debut screenplay by actor Wentworth Miller (“Prison Break”) follows India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a teenage girl who develops a powerful infatuation with her mysterious and somewhat creepy uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) after India’s father is killed, and Charlie moves in with India’s unstable mother (Kidman).

Park says that, at first glance, India and Charlie’s apparent lack of a sense of guilt struck him as very different from his own characters’ morality. Although Park’s protagonists sometimes commit unspeakably violent acts, they are often tormented by their own guilt. During the course of filming “Stoker,” however, Park came to see that the new film was very much of a piece with his earlier movies.

The notion of evil — what draws us to it it and how it transforms us — is a thread that runs throughout Park’s work, which the director says has drawn inspiration from sources as disparate (and lofty) as Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa. In “Stoker,” as with his other films, Park says he tried to draw our attention, unflinchingly, to the human condition at its most bestial. That is to say, when rage, pain, regret, embarrassment and violence have stripped away the veneer of civilization.

Park notes, not without irony, that although U.S. audiences still consider him an arthouse director, in Korea he’s become very mainstream. (This, from someone whose “Oldboy” features an infamous, stomach-turning scene of the antihero eating a live squid.)

Perhaps that’s about to change. Before “Stoker,” Park used to see the community of actors divided into those who spoke Korean and those who didn’t. Now, he says, he sees only those who can act and those who cannot. “All good actors,” he explains, “are unrestricted by language or borders.”

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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