In his American film debut, Stoker, director Park Chan-wook‘s sensibility remains intact. Nothing about his sense of humor, eye for framing, or his stylish and brutal portrayal of violence has been softened or altered. The film plays in genre, which Park refers to as a “castle” he likes to regularly take twists and turns in.
The critically-acclaimed director doesn’t see himself above genre, though. Park doesn’t subvert genre staples but fully embraces them with a slightly twisted view.
We briefly spoke with Park about his genre work, how he’s made an R-rated version of Peter Pan, and more in our spoiler-y chat with him
Matthew Goode has said that he sees his character in the film as a “fucked up” version of Peter Pan. Would you agree with that?
Yes. Right from the beginning it was a very important concept, this notion of this small child living inside of Charlie, and to find an actor that could portray this side of Uncle Charlie through his performance was a very important aspect of the casting process. Not only did Matthew have the ability to portray that but he understood the emotion very well.
Casting him made for an interesting dichotomy, having a very manly kind of actor play someone who is very childish. What was it about Goode that said he could portray that inner-child?
Well, it didn’t form a standard or basis for his casting. Of course you’re right that if at first glance you could already see that there is a child-like quality in the actor it would be troubling, because when the decisive moment comes, when the child-like side aspect of Charlie is revealed, it needs to be shocking. So, at the first glance you cannot see a small child inside of Matthew, it is important. Having said that, I didn’t consciously look for an actor with a very macho appearance to hide that aspect of Uncle Charlie. Apart from this very gentlemanly outward appearance and inner-child he needed another layer, yet another layer, and that is the devil that lurks inside of Uncle Charlie. He needed that reveal to be just as shocking. He needed somebody that, at first glance, seemed like a soft and gentle person.
I read that Fox Searchlight wanted to show more in the scene where Uncle Charlie kills a certain family member. For a film like this, where you are filming for an American audience, are you more audience-conscious?
On the issue of Fox Searchlight wanting to show more in that scene, I felt I was proved wrong in the initial design of the scene, in that my original design was for Uncle Charlie to simply undo the belt and end the scene there. I thought it was an elegant finish to leave to it for the audience to imagine what comes next. It would be an elevated way to end the scene to just show him undoing his belt. However, Fox Searchlight suggested that we show Uncle Charlie going in for the kill, as it were. My initial reaction was that I didn’t want to do that.
However, quite unrelated to Fox Searchlight’s suggestion it sparked a chain of thought: “Hold on a minute, does finishing the scene with Uncle Charlie undoing the belt, does it suggest that he is going to rape her?” And this troubled me because Charlie certainly isn’t a rapist. He may be a killer but he is certainly not a rapist. I thought it would be interesting that during this scene the audience might be thinking, “Oh no, he’s not going to rape this old woman, is he?” and have this kind of ironic twist where the audience is actually relieved and thinking, “Oh no, he’s just going to kill her!” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Before making Stoker, would you ever think about of how a scene would play better for an audience versus your vision?
Something that I am always striving to do is [figure out] where to position myself between following the audience’s expectations and living up to it or betraying the audience’s expectations. Of the two, the aspect of my films which has attributed to following the audience’s expectations is the genre nature of my work. If a film has genre nature about it builds a certain audience expectation about it in that it is in a certain genre and this is going to pan out this or that way, but I am not a filmmaker that completely destroys genre or is completely outside of genre. In the bigger framework I follow the genre’s structure, and following the conventions within that structure is a very boring thing, a very predictable thing. That is why it is important to betray genre conventions at every turn even while staying with a genre’s structure.
To put it another way, my films start from a foundation. In other words, it comes from within the castle of a genre. I veer from the main streets and turn into these little alley ways, and once you’re on this path you find yourself outside of the castle. But not too far away, still just one step away.
Much of the violence in Stoker is implied, like some of your other works. Do you disagree when critics or fans say that your films are extreme?
When people label my films as extreme cinema, maybe it is just that they have not previously been exposed to extreme cinema before. I don’t shy away from that label, but in my view my films are very tame as opposed to the works of other filmmakers.
Stoker is now in theaters.