They signed on to star in a movie that may have sported Western celebrities but would offer Park's distinct visual palette, its exactingly composed frames featuring splashes of bright color on its Gothic grays. (In the edit room, Park had a mantra of sorts. "I like it because it feels different," he would tell De Toth. The movie also invokes some unusual symbolism; production designer Therese DePrez says she and Park talked about bird themes — notions of both mama and baby and hunter and hunted — before the shoot.)
As the movie prepared to shoot in 2011 in the sweltering Nashville summer — an accommodation to Kidman, who calls the city home — Park began introducing the cast to his exacting techniques. "He hired a storyboard artist to draw every scene of the movie. It was more meticulous than anything I've seen in a long time," Wasikowska said. And as someone who's worked with Gus Van Sant and Tim Burton, she's seen meticulous.
Kidman joked that she and other actors said to Park, "We'd do anything you like," holding her arms in front of her in the manner of a zombie. But she acknowledged that Park's method "did prevent me a little bit from improvising."
Before De Toth began editing the film, Park handed him a nearly 300-page tome describing every beat of the sessions that would follow. De Toth, who has worked on numerous studio films, politely mentioned that the process went somewhat differently in Hollywood. The edit also involved some back-and-forth with Searchlight executives, with an earlier Park cut heavier on atmospherics nearly 20 minutes longer than the 98-minute finished film.
Perhaps because Park has such vaunted status in his home country, where he enjoys a Spielberg-ian level of fame, there is an air of intense if even-tempered seriousness around the director. His speech can almost seem surgical, and even his laughs, when they happen, seem to be measured out in teaspoons. (Though Goode let slip that the filmmaker enjoys a night out and a glass of whiskey, while De Toth offered an even more colorful detail: Park sometimes likes to giggle at iPad photos of fluffy kittens.)
Park's high-precision approach didn't start on the set.
A student of philosophy at Seoul's liberal arts Sogang University, he began his career as a film critic, a job that seems particularly suited to his scalpel-like dissections. Though known now for screen blood (Park directed the "Vengeance Trilogy" of which "Oldboy" is a part as well as the 2009 vampire tale "Thirst"), his first features were more conventional dramas and comedies. Most notably, there was 2000's "Joint Security Area," a politically themed tale about his country's relationship with North Korea that became a hit at home. Armed with some financial freedom, Park set out to explore the question of violence, a force he felt wasn't being investigated honestly on film.
With "Stoker," he thinks there's more potential than ever to bring that subject to the masses, in part because most movies with a message about violence don't use shiny celebrities as their delivery vehicle.
The director said he was nervous about working with big-name actors and their potentially matching egos. But he felt reassured upon his first meeting with Kidman. "She came without an entourage and got down to brass tacks," he said. "There was no talking about the weather. I liked that."
To what degree a broad American audience will like Park's style, though, remains to be seen. Though some directors have toggled between Asian and American modes of filmmaking — John Woo and Ang Lee come to mind — their Hollywood films tend to incorporate Asian influences but remain, in key areas such as dialogue and plot, more recognizably Western.
With its brooding tone, complex structure and deadeye look at the evolution of evil, "Stoker" feels more like an Asian film that happens to be made in English. "It's the idea of nature and nurture, and whether there's a predisposition in the blood lines," Goode said of the movie's themes.
Certainly Hollywood believes in Park's appeal. In addition to "Oldboy," from Mandate Pictures, billionaire financier Megan Ellison ("Zero Dark Thirty") is backing a remake of Park's "Lady Vengeance," about a woman who seeks payback on the people who wrongly put her in prison, with Charlize Theron set to star. Several big-ticket producers have hired him to take on a much-liked western titled "The Brigands of Rattleborge," which will likely be either his next film or the one after that.
But not all film experts have been enamored with Park, with some seeing his work as soulless style exercises. In her New York Times review of "Oldboy," Manohla Dargis acknowledged Park was a virtuoso, then said, "But so what? So was the last guy who directed a Gap commercial."
There is, of course, also the sensibility issue. The most famous scene in "Oldboy" has revenge being extracted literally — with teeth pulled out using crude implements in a way that tends to cause cringe-y laughter. "Thirst" contains the blackest sort of humor, like when a vampire lies on the floor of a hospital room sucking at blood-filled intravenous tubes. Though it's hard to quantify that vibe as unequivocally Asian, it's not exactly American.
It also remains to be seen whether a U.S. public scarred by mass shootings in Colorado and Connecticut will cotton to a movie in which a lonely young person enacts violent revenge on those she believes have wronged her, as India Stoker does.
But other reactions were mixed. The former GQ writer Logan Hill called the picture an "absurd, stilted, soapy mess," saying it was "art-directed to a chilly death" and "bloodless except for the bloodletting."
Others quietly asked if the movie's gruesomeness was confusing the portrayal of murder with a commentary about it.
But according to the director, to consider "Stoker" a soap opera — or worse, an endorsement of violence — is to miss the point. "In films, violence is often avoided or misused or overused," he said. "Rather than make a film that uses violence, I'm making a film about violence. Violence is not a spectacle. It's a way of presenting an issue or a custom or morality." He added: "I will always use violence."