“My ears hear what others cannot hear…these senses are the fruit of a lifetime of longing…” – India Stoker
So goes the first line in Stoker (2013), Chan-wook Park‘s English-language debut. It’s a line that brilliantly highlights one of the film’s most important facets, both stylistically and thematically: sound. More than any of the South Korean director’s other films, Stoker places an intense focus on the sounds of the story’s world. In the first 15 minutes or so, the technique can feel somewhat uneasy, but once one adjusts, Stoker‘s sound design becomes one of its highlights. And in certain scenes, the sound work (including the score) helps the film achieve some of its most stunning moments.
This is, in large part, due to how the sound compliments the nature of Mia Wasikowska‘s protagonist, India, as well as the dark shift she undergoes over the course of the film. India is reserved to the point of absolute alienation, even in her own house. She’s more content to read books about funeral traditions across the globe that spend the day shopping with her flighty, boozing mother Evie (Nicole Kidman). India is an observer, and often a passive one, at least at the film’s start. Yet, even when distracted, as she is at the reception of her father’s funeral, Park still highlights little details like the sounds of cracking egg shells. As in-your-face as they are to the audience, they create a world of borderline oppressive sound that swirls around India’s head. When India’s mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) tries to introduce himself, India wanders off through the family mansion. Rather than hear her footsteps or an inner monologue, the sound instead brings in snippets of conversations happening around India. She retreats into the scattered conversations of the nameless hordes crowding her home, and all else vanishes.
The most obvious comparison in regards to the use of sound is Lynne Ramsay‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). Tilda Swinton‘s Eva wanders through the film in a state of empty disillusionment, and the film highlights things like windshield wipers and bouncing balls to accentuate her mental uneasiness. As in Stoker, Ramsay’s film drew both praise and scorn for its deliberately pronounced sound work. Yet where Kevin‘s use of sound popped up throughout the film, Stoker utilizes specific sounds constantly, with everything from crickets to metronomes humming under the gorgeously composed images.
And as the story progresses, the sounds slowly become less oppressive, and more revealing. Within the individual details, Park is able to expand the world of his film, which is largely confined to the Stoker home. Even when India isn’t present, sounds are heightened, such as when Charlie removes his belt to violently confront a nosy relative (Jacki Weaver). It’s this consistency that keeps the audience firmly planted in the headspace of a deeply introspective girl as she embarks on an increasingly dark journey, both in and outside of herself.
The most striking part of that journey is India’s sexual awakening, which becomes inexorably linked to the film’s flashes of dark violence. After India and Charlie dispose of a boy who tries to rape India on a date, India pleasures herself in the shower, for what is presumably the first time. It’s not a subtle sequence, but it is perfectly in line with the demented progression of the narrative. In the beginning, India’s keen hearing is almost burdensome, like Sookie Stackhouse’s intrusive mindreading on HBO’s True Blood. Yet as she begins to bloom, the sounds feel more under her control. When approached by a misogynistic bully after school, India stabs him with a pencil, and then walks away. Back at home, we see India sharpening the pencil. As the layers of bloodied wood shave off, the sound sickeningly highlights the combination of blood and wood, before the pencil is clean and resharpened, a weapon as deceptively small as India herself.
Equally impressive is the film’s use of music. Clint Mansell‘s score, though often over-the-top, creates a seductive, Hitchcockian tone throughout. And, when needed, it also helps jack up the intensity and tension of the given scene to nearly unbearable levels. And, like the other sounds of the film, music is also tied with India’s dark, burgeoning sexuality. Early on, India’s mother asks her to play a tune on the piano, and India sullenly refuses. Yet after enough time with Charlie hanging around the house, India makes her way to the piano for the film’s single most arresting moment. Instead of focusing on the little noises – creaking floorboards or squeaking door hinges – the film silences virtually everything but the Stoker’s grand piano. It begins as a solo performance, until Charlie joins India. He begins seated next to her, supporting her playing. Yet as the scene progresses, and the music (a contribution from Philip Glass) escalates, the duet becomes a masterful work of body language. The piano plays on at full force as Charlie wraps himself around India, and Park focuses on the smallest body movements, such as a carefully placed hand or an ankle twisted in uncertain anxiety.
Despite the explicit notions of sexuality in the film, this musically-dominated sequence is the most breathlessly erotic in the entire piece, in part because it isn’t linked to any violence. It carries an ambiguous, sinister undertone, particularly in the way Charlie vanishes like a shadow once the duet is over, yet it is also the most isolated incident of sexual awakening found in the film by virtue of its isolation. The duet is the moment where the sounds of India’s world, the fruit of that lifetime of longing, lose their oppressive, confusing hold over the protagonist, and awaken her to a world around her that is much darker than anything she’ll ever read in a book. By the time the narrative has run its course, the sounds still play an integral part of the film’s design, but they are (relatively speaking) at their quietest, as they have at last been conquered by a protagonist on a warped journey to womanhood that could only come to life so gorgeously in Mr. Park’s hands.
Read FMR’s review of Stoker here