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.
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.
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."
Before long, Park had flown to Los Angeles for a three-hour meeting with Searchlight executives, eventually agreeing that he and his longtime cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung, would come aboard. The director had long wanted to make a Hollywood movie but had never found the right script. In "Stoker," however, he believed he had something different.
"I could use character and violence more gracefully than in my other films," Park recalled. "This was a rite-of-passage story, and I was very interested in the idea of how violence can break someone out of that."
Producers — they include Ridley Scott, his late brother, Tony, and their longtime collaborator Michael Costigan — first negotiated with Jodie Foster, Carey Mulligan and Colin Firth to star. Scheduling and contract issues arose, however, and the final result, budgeted at about $12 million, is a more Australian affair, with Kidman and Wasikowska in the mother and daughter parts and the Brit Matthew Goode, a frequent BBC presence, as Charlie. (All play Americans.)
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."