Review of Stoker, Directed by Park Chan-wook
(WARNING: This review contains mature content of a sexual nature. Reader discretion advised. Spoilers are also included.)
How much of our lives is determined by our heritage? What does it mean to be an adult? These kinds of questions form the undercurrent in Stoker, the newest film by South Korean director Park Chan-wook. Park leaves us with a paradoxical answer: we cannot escape the sins of our family yet the essence of being an adult is freedom.
India Stoker’s father is dead. He died on her 18th birthday. Her uncle Charlie appears, an uncle she’s never known about. Her mother, Evelyn (“Evie”), is disturbingly drawn to her uncle. This triangle of relationships between India, Charlie, and Evie, supports the entire film, which creeps along in an eerie, Hitchcock-like fashion. Charlie starts living in the house with India and her mother and integrates into their daily lives—making meals, taking Evie out to go shopping, working the yard. Soon enough, Charlie and Evie develop an erotic relationship, but we then learn that India seems to be the true object of his affections.
A string of murders accompanies this unfolding plot—the housekeeper, the visiting aunt, and India’s crush. The two more shocking revelations are the murder of India’s father and the final murder at the end of the film, which I’ll leave to the conclusion of this review. I personally hooked my thoughts about Stoker on six scenes. Though these are not necessarily the major points in the plot development, they fleshed out, for me, the movie’s thrust.
I. India’s Introduction
The opening scene has India’s voice narrating internal thoughts as audiences are treated to a glimpse of the closing scenes of the film, but of course you don’t know that’s what it is. This narration sets the driving questions of Stoker. India harmlessly announces two truths. First, we are not responsible for what we are. India wears her mother’s blouse and her father’s belt. Second, to be an adult is to be free. We learn later that these aren’t harmless propositions.
II. Snow Angel
There’s a brief visual of India waving her arms and legs while she’s flat on her back on her bed, the same motions used to make a snow angel. The importance of this scene, lasting only a couple of seconds, escapes the grasp of the audience until much later. We learn that there were three Stoker brothers. Richard (India’s father), Charlie (the uncle), and Jonathan. Charlie explains to India how he killed Jonathan as a little boy, burying Jonathan alive in the playground sand. In a flashback, we see a younger Charlie making a snow angel in the sand on top of Jonathan’s sandy grave.
The visual connection is critical to understanding India. We think that Charlie and Evie are the centerpiece while we follow India, the outsider looking in, only to find that it’s actually Evie who is sidelined and discovers Charlie’s true intentions a little too late.
III. The Duet
This connection between India and Charlie is first revealed during a piano duet. Prior to this scene, India is wary and even hostile toward Charlie. But as India is playing alone, Charlie appears and joins her, and they duel each other in a sweeping music piece. At a crucial point of tension, Charlie reaches around her to play with one hand on the higher register of the piano, placing India in an awkward embrace. While this is happening, the camera focuses on India’s feet as they curl up—a visual euphemism for an orgasmic experience.
IV. The Shower
There is a second portrayal of sexual climax during a shower scene after India’s crush attempts to rape her, only to be strangled to death by Charlie. We assume India’s taking a shower to calm her nerves after such a horrific experience, and she seems to be crying as we see flashbacks of the strangulation, of discovering the corpse of the housekeeper in the basement freezer, and other disturbing images. But we are shocked to discover she is actually pleasuring herself in the shower.
It’s at this point that we see the lines converging. Sexual expression as an adult is tied to her gruesome heritage of violence expressed in her uncle. India is drawn to her uncle because she’s more like him than her mother.
V. Evie’s Diatribe
This is a chilling monologue delivered by Evie to India. Evie verbally ponders the motivation to have children and concludes that it’s because parents want their children to make up for past mistakes, to “get it right this time”. But Evie’s wish for India is to “watch life tear her apart”. This can be taken in many ways, but I favor seeing this as a clear breaking point. India’s been severed from her mother and is attached to Charlie.
Evie’s diatribe is also a commentary on the film’s theme of heritage-based determinism. In a way, she’s recognizing the futility of India becoming something that she’s not. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
VI. Sheriff’s Murder
These streams come to a head in India murdering the sheriff who’s investigating her crush’s disappearance. This seals her fate as Charlie’s descendant. She’s a murderer. When Richard, India’s father, was alive, he taught her to hunt and they spent many days together out hunting, leaving Evie at home. Hence while both Richard and Charlie kill, it’s Charlie’s killing that India inherits.
And so the film comes full circle. We see the opening scenes again, but in their proper context, with the sheriff running into the field after receiving a neck wound from India’s shears. India ends his life with her hunting rifle. She does so wearing her mother’s blouse and her father’s belt. But her father’s belt is tainted—Charlie uses it as a murder weapon to kill the visiting aunt, to strangle the potential rapist, and then turns it against Evie. Without reading too much into the symbolism, her father’s belt may imply her father’s entire bloodline, which includes the good (Richard) and the bad (Charlie).
India answers our opening questions for us. She is just like her uncle—his legacy is her inheritance. And India drives off with a small packed bag, leaving her mother alone in the house—to be an adult is to be free. The packed bag contains an organizer that Richard gave Charlie on the day he died, which included money, credit cards, a map, and more; everything needed to start a life separate from Richard’s family. So by taking this organizer, the union between Charlie and India is complete. Paradoxically, even with such freedom, India still carries baggage, both literally and figuratively.
Identity is a critical topic in Christian theology and the ambiguous answers Stoker give us reflect the mixed nature of our identities. In the Bible, we either identify with Christ or identify with Adam (Romans 5). The corruption of our fathers has in fact been carried from descendant to descendant, and that is a stain that cannot be washed away without a new identity. But India is mistaken when she says that we’re not responsible for what we are. We are still held accountable for our sin. Whether we are born a certain way does not excuse the moral decisions we make that flow from the disposition of our natures.
The title of the film is Stoker, which is apt. The name encapsulates everything—identity, inheritance, family. Our name has tacit characteristics attached to it that bequeath an identity. Will our identities be found in Christ or found in Adam? Are we the old man or the new man? To be removed from the bloodline of Adam is impossible with man, but with God, he has made a way to be grafted into a new family. And in this new family, we have true freedom from our old way of life.
Read another Schaeffer’s Ghost perspective on Stoker from Christian Hamaker.