When Oldboy was released to the world in 2003 it was a trailblazer for Korean cinema with its taboo storyline, stylish directing and shocking ending. A decade later and director Park Chan-Wook has finally made his English-language debut, following in the footsteps of his countryman Kim Ji-Woon who has also made his first foray into Hollywood with The Last Stand. Whilst both being accomplished in their own right, Park’s Stoker is the main course to Kim’s fun-yet-limited hors d’oeuvre.
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18 but is hit by tragedy by the death of her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney). She goes to live with her estranged mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and soon meets Richard’s brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), for the first time, unaware he even existed. After it is announced he is to live with them, Uncle Charlie begins to show a sinister side beneath his attractive exterior, seducing Evelyn and taking a vested interest in India. As she is an outcast and introvert at school, this slow menacing trait of his seems to stir something in her and they begin to bond in the most deadly of ways.
On the surface, this could appear to be a pretentious piece of work with arty shots of everything from the mundane to the pointless. It is far from it. The striking visuals, the angled close-ups of ordinary objects, the subtle noises such as the ticks of a clock and the sharpening of a pencil – these captivating bits of imagery set up a foreboding sense of dread.
Remarkably written by Wentworth Miller from Prison Break, it is no surprise this was listed as one of the best unproduced screenplays of 2010. He has incorporated elements of mystery, horror and thriller into a coherent fashion that is squarely focused on the family and their bizarre interactions with each other. However, it is Park’s craftsmanship that has really brought the story to life. Taking obvious references from Hitchcock with his framing of scenes and deft undertones, it could have easily been a straightforward slasher flick in the wrong hands.
There’s also some superb disquieting acting from the three leads; Goode gives an eloquently creepy performance and bears a resemblance to Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, with his charming demeanour becoming more and more threatening as the film progresses. Kidman plays the cold, disconnected mother perfectly, while Wasikowska has the air of a modern day Sissy Spacek in Carrie that comes to an awakening much like that of Cecile de France’s character in Switchblade Romance. A disturbing coming-of-age concoction if ever there was one.
Naturally some people will not enjoy its leisurely pacing, and the painstaking precision of almost every shot may bore and frustrate – a simple act like making a phone call for instance cannot be done without some inventive perspective.
Overall, Stoker is a beautiful, brutal film – sumptuously directed with almost every shot alluding to some hidden meaning. Audiences will talk about their different theories and take on things immediately after the ending, whether good or bad. It is the brilliance of a film when it evokes a response to watch it again. Everything about this radiates with quality – exactly what you would expect from the mind behind The Vengeance Trilogy. Let’s hope there is more to come.