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Chan-wook Park has a lot riding on blood-filled 'Stoker'

The exacting director, a giant in Asian cinema, hopes to win over U.S. audiences with the violent film. Success could mark a new era in East-West filmmaking.

February 09, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • South Korean director Chan-wook Park, second from right, with stars Matthew Goode, Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman, right.
South Korean director Chan-wook Park, second from right, with stars Matthew… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

In a high-tech bungalow on a back corner of the 20th Century Fox lot, the South Korean auteur Chan-wook Park is chiseling his opus as the clock ticks toward 9 p.m.

Park, the toast of Asian cinema and hero to hordes of genre-film enthusiasts, is editing "Stoker," a coming-of-age Gothic thriller starring Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman. It's his first film in the U.S. and first in English. For hard-core fans of the director's blood-spattered Korean work — including "Oldboy," the 2004 Cannes Grand Prix winner being remade by Spike Lee — his arrival on the shores might be compared, with less exaggeration than you may think, to the landing of the Beatles.

At one end of the bungalow sits a monitor the size of a large flat-screen television, where images of Wasikowska's loner character unfold — absently playing piano, intently making snow angels. Park, 49, is perched on a leather couch with an air of quiet authority, an iPad on his lap, his fingers every so often whisking scenes to and fro. Alongside him are the veteran Hollywood editor Nicolas de Toth and Wonjo Jeong, a cheerful, British-accented South Korean who travels with Park as translator and all-around aide-de-camp.

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For hours, Park has been tweaking two scenes that will comprise barely a minute in the finished film. "Director Park thinks we should put the beat sooner, then show her walking," Wonjo says to De Toth, who is doing his best to pretend he's not tired. The editor gently asks a question of the scene, which involves synchronizing a metronome to an actor's movements, and says he'll give it a shot. Images and sounds are mixed. There is quiet, a short burst of Korean from Wonjo, then a flurry back from Park.

Finally, De Toth offers another suggestion. After a quick volley of Korean, Wonjo utters the magic words: "Director Park agrees."

To spend time in the editing room with Park — who practices a brand of arty, at times exploitation-y, cinematic violence that might be described as "Tarantino-esque with less winking" — is to watch the movie equivalent of a scientist manipulating bacteria under a microscope. "Some people say I'm obsessive about detail," Park said, via Wonjo, at dinner later that night. "I ask the question: 'Do you mean other directors aren't worried about detail?'"

On March 1, the director's meticulousness will be put to the test. That's when "Stoker," following its premiere last month at the Sundance Film Festival, opens in theaters, offering a serial killer-themed story about a disaffected teen, her aloof mother and the teen's enigmatic uncle. "I wanted to make a movie that showed the root of evil," he explained, adding, "You might not find a more brutal torture scene in any other film I've made than you do in this one." (Park didn't specify which scene he was referring to, though an image of a severed head may qualify.)

As the film seeks to unleash its Korean cinema-flavored violence in a post-Newtown America, there is a lot at stake. If "Stoker" succeeds, Park could stand at the head of a new wave of East-West cinematic collaboration. If he fails, "Stoker" will be more kindling for those who say the American mainstream just doesn't want to see films directed by Asian auteurs, especially those full of violence.

Perhaps some extra editing isn't a bad idea.

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Unknown writer

In 2010, a mysterious script began making the rounds in Hollywood. It was set at an isolated, well-appointed estate, and its story seemed to exist outside of time and space. Its title, "Stoker," evoked Dracula, though there were no discernible vampires. Its writer was one "Ted Foulke," a man for whom, as several baffled agents noted at the time, there was no known entry in any of the Hollywood databases.

After months of rumors, the identity of the script's author was revealed, and it came as a huge surprise: Wentworth Miller, the actor best known for playing the hero Michael Scofield on the Fox show "Prison Break."

But it was the story on the page that created the most intrigue. "Stoker" told of India Stoker, a young woman whose father died on her 18th birthday. At the funeral, the father's long-lost brother Charlie shows up, speaking of his closeness for his niece, who doesn't appear to know him. India's mother, on the other hand, seems well acquainted with Charlie and flirts with him. As the triangle grows tighter, Charlie's dark impulses emerge — impulses it becomes clear India, with a penchant for stoic violence, will either imitate or quash.

The studio specialty label Fox Searchlight, known for a kind of populist artiness, snatched up the rights. The script ended up on the year's Black List of top unproduced screenplays — just behind "Safe House" and several spots ahead of "Argo."

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