With Stoker, South Korean director Park Chan-wook – who has been working since the early 1990s in his home country, but is perhaps best known to most people in the West for the middle entry in his ‘Vengeance Trilogy’, Oldboy – succeeds where many other East Asian directors have previously failed: the move into English language filmmaking.
This gothic family thriller, flecked with the odd splash of blood and symbolic CGI spiders, stars Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker, the daughter of recently widowed Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Stunned by her father’s death into what appears to be a stalled transition into adulthood, India is nonplussed when her late father’s brother Charlie arrives to live with them, having returned from a long spell of travelling.
Charlie is played with poised, fashion-catalogue creepiness by Matthew Goode – unnerving India and, initially, Evelyn, with his resemblance to their late father and husband. But India senses something developing between her mother and uncle, and is unsure how to interpret her feelings. Cue the onset of a strange, twisted coming-of-age story.
Chan-wook and his regular cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung paint this drama-cum-murder mystery in vivid colours, layering the scenes with symbolism (most of which is overt, and purposefully so) and loaded images. There have been complaints in some quarters about what some feel are the film’s more clichéd and ‘obvious’ tricks, but I felt that, ensconced in the film’s unashamedly gothic atmosphere, they worked rather well.
The three leads have a great chemistry, and they conjure up effective scenes throughout. You could make a case for Goode’s performance being too melodramatic, too obvious, to really leave the film much room for manoeuvre, but Stoker is quite happy to create tension in its situations and through suggestions in the acting and the positioning of the camera. And besides, the film is evidently more concerned with India’s development as a character than it is with Charlie’s. Wasikowska, as India, continues to demonstrate that she is an impressive on-screen presence, and Kidman effectively moulds Evelyn into a fractured, sympathetic figure.
Technically speaking, the film is fantastic. Enjoying the artistry of the visuals and the composition of some of the shots, moved along gracefully by Clint Mansell’s haunting, lovely score, is worth the asking price alone. There is also very little fat on these cinematic bones; the film doesn’t overstay its welcome, and pretty much everything in there appears to mean something, or to reflect on something else. At no point does it feel like it’s betraying its own sense of the symbolic and the weird.
If one wanted to be picky, one could argue that the ending, while it does admirably follow through on the film’s twisted thesis on sexuality and ascension into adulthood, perhaps overshoots the mark a little, and there are a couple of logic gaps in the actions of one or two characters. It does also lack the sheer visceral punch of something like Oldboy, or the out-and-out weirdness of Thirst, but as a precursor to what will hopefully become a long career in English language filmmaking – in addition to his already established status – Park Chan-wook’s Stoker is a compelling, darkly humorous watch.