Critics seem to be of mostly one mind about Stoker, the English-language debut of famed Korean director Chan-Wook Park. They praise the technical prowess of Park – after all, he’s the kind of revered foreign director that cinephiles are not permitted to dislike – but have little positive to say about the story or its themes. Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle called it “a story not worth filming.” Michael O’Sullivan in the Washington Post described it as “gallons of style slathered on a story you already know by heart.” Even the film’s supporters seem more enamored of its style than anything. Tom Long in The Detroit News wrote begrudgingly that, “none of it is life-changing, but it is effectively eerie.” These critics are missing the point. Sure, the story is archetypical and some of the larger twists can be read in advance, but there is within the film a deep subversion of our collective thinking on an issue that has dominated our culture of late. The issue? Girl power.
The film requires a magnetic central performance, and Mia Wasikowska – who, with her impressive performance in 2011’s Jane Eyre, is quickly becoming the It Girl for gothic romance – delivers the goods. She stars as India, a teenaged wallflower who lives in the shadow of her bloodline as the daughter of a recently deceased father, with whom she was close, and a cold, hard bitch of a mother (Nicole Kidman). On the day of the funeral, her father’s estranged brother Richard (Matthew Goode) returns and is soon playing the role of the head of the household, making not-so-subtle overtures towards his brother’s willing widow. We learn early on that Uncle Richard is a villain; India’s reluctant attraction to him speeds her maturation into woman, but her ultimate rejection of him, through a violent act, completes her hero’s journey.
Although Park imbues his films with dozens of small deceptions and reveals, the narrative flourishes hide a very conventional emotional arc. A young female who is abandoned by her parents and thrust into a dangerous situation; the plot has been a staple of the past few years of film. Last year alone, there were The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Brave, each of which basically followed this template.
It is a reflection of recent advances made by women in the public sphere – as CEOs, politicians, NFL referees – but only Stoker shows the courage of its convictions by refusing to sanitize its lead female’s journey. In each of those other films, the heroines are put in very sympathetic positions, in which they are forced to either kill or die. The Hunger Games, in particular, absolves the viewer of any responsibility for enjoying its bloodshed. We know that 23 of the child contestants will die and one will live; it might as well be Katniss, and we cannot be faulted for rooting for her survival at the expense of others. Likewise, Snow White and the Huntsman (as well as its grotesque step-sister, Mirror, Mirror) identified its hero as a political freedom fighter; she led a revolution against a despotic Queen, making her embrace of violent means not only necessary but admirable.
There is no political context for India’s revolution of the soul, but that gives her actions more room to resonate. Park purposefully gives us no respite from the dark sides of her story. India also acts in self-defense, but she thoroughly enjoys her newfound power, and Park brazenly co-mingles the defense of her physical life with an awakening of her sexuality. It is perhaps understandable that young India would be aroused by her handsome estranged uncle, but her ecstatic reaction upon seeing a would-be rapist killed before her eyes brings her – and the viewer – into uncharted waters.
How are we supposed to feel about this? As befitting the trend of recent girl-power films, Stoker celebrates India’s self-actualization and her freedom from familial oppression. But it also betrays more than a little ambiguity about her future. As India moves far beyond mere self-defense, we start to believe that, in rooting for her success, we may have created a monster. She has learned to survive, but at what cost to society?
Really, the question that we may find ourselves asking of the dangerous India is: are we her next victim? Although Stoker is a film about women, its gaze is undeniably male and its tone one of fear and anxiety. Over the last several years, our society has come to celebrate women rising to unprecedented levels of power. We came close to electing our first female president in 2008 – we may finally do so in 2016. There are a record-high 20 female senators currently serving in Congress. President Obama won re-election with the largest gender gap in history, largely on the anachronistic and thoughtless comments made by several high-profile Republican candidates on gender issues.
Further, women are increasingly driving box office grosses, a fact that was evidenced by last year’s surprise hit Magic Mike and, more recently, the surprising success of Halle Berry’s The Call, which beat Steve Carell and Jim Carrey in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone last weekend. Combining film and politics, we also may have our first female action star follow in the footsteps of Reagan, Schwarzenegger, and Ventura and make the leap into national politics in Ashley Judd.
The goals of the feminist movement are being achieved all around us, but Stoker demonstrates that there is still plenty of male fear lurking behind our enthusiasm. In the film’s shocking closing scene, India flexes the power of her sexuality – just because she can – and an almost random male character is made to suffer. By this point, the film has leveled its male gaze at an empowered young woman and given the audience cause to wonder if our society has instilled in her the right values. In a way, Stoker reflects back to the viewer similar sentiments as the just-released Spring Breakers, which questions the television and movie culture that has turned a generation of teenage girls into criminals looking for the ultimate party. India’s party is just a bit closer to home.
Ultimately, Stoker goes much easier on its heroine than Spring Breakers, and much tougher on the rest of us. No one has ever called Chan-Wook Park a feminist, but it’s clear he has learned the lessons of the movement. He knows that a woman’s sexuality can be her most powerful weapon and that men, no matter how liberal they think they are, may never quite get used to it.