The track record for foreign language filmmakers making their break in English language film is something of a mixed affair. For every Bernardo Bertolucci, Wim Wenders or Ang Lee there are a dozen who get seemingly lost in translation. Even the great Michael Haneke has fallen into this trap with a bizarrely pointless shot for shot remake of his own Funny Games. Now Park Chan-wook, the South Korean director behind The Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance) heads to the US with Stoker, a contemporary gothic fairytale that despite a change of geography grapples with recurrent themes of his previous work such as crumbling family values, the havoc wreaked by long held secrets and the slow but inevitable lapse into extreme violence.
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has her life turned upside down when her father is killed in a car accident on her eighteenth birthday. Living alone with her distant and brittle mother (Nicole Kidman), India’s sense of confusion and adolescent detachment is increased by the sudden arrival of her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) whom she never knew existed. Not long after he nestles himself into this shattered family unit, India realises that Charlie has an ulterior and chilling motive for his visit. Rather than horrify her however, it brings to light a side of herself she never knew she had…
With all the recent talk of Alfred Hitchcock, both in press and on our screens, Stoker may appear at first to be some sort of astonishingly well timed homage. The basic storyline has been compared to that of Shadow Of A Doubt, in which a mysterious uncle’s arrival (also named Charlie ) also brings dark reckoning to a distant family. One of Hitchcock’s most memorable bits of advice on filmmaking was to ‘film your murders like love scenes and your love scenes like murders’. It’s advice that Chan-wook has taken very much to heart in all of his work and here is no exception. Whatever you think of Stoker’s macabre and graphic tone there is no denying that it is beautifully crafted to within an inch of its life. Chan-wook’s camera glides effortlessly through through the sparse, lavish yet ominous surroundings of the Stokers’ rural estate where he and regular cinematographer Chung Chung -hoon conjure up colours and shadows that enthrall as well as frighten. There are several stunning edits littered throughout the film most notably between a set of children’s shoes that reduce in size to show the passing of time and strands of combed hair morphing into weeds. When it comes to the bloodletting that has occurred throughout his films, Chan-wook knows exactly when to hold back and when to confront. It is not so much the graphic depiction of violence that unsettles (most of the death actually takes place off screen) but rather the mere suggestion of it and the effect it has on the characters. Perhaps the most lurid (and controversial) scene cuts back and forth between the moment of a murder and a moment of sexual awakening. Rather than seem like cheap titillation it marks a arresting point of no return for the central character. It is one of the more bold and confrontational moments that the script throws out to us. If there is a central flaw to accuse Stoker of it is that the script by Wentworth Miller (originally writing under a pseudonym to distract from his Prison Break fame) does not throw up as many curveballs in the narrative that we expect from previous films by Chan-wook or the many paths we seem to be being led down at the films opening. The more ambiguous tones strike as unsettling but many are revealed to be nothing but elaborate window dressing and the climactic big reveal feels forced and something of a let down after everything that has preceded it. It doesn’t help that it can’t hold a candle to Oldboy’s jaw dropping denouement. Some may attack Stoker for being a triumph of style over substance. Though certainly not a claim without argument, we should be happy that the style is as assured as it is.
Whilst the narrative may have its flaws, it is thankfully the characters and performances that truly stick in the memory. Mia Wasikowska does a fantastic job of not only credibly passing for a teenager (often a major flaw of adults portraying younger characters) but making India’s slow but sinister transformation believable. With jet black hair and a seemingly permanent set frown borrowed from Wednesday Adams, India could have easily lapsed in a comical caricature of adolescent torment but Wasikowska has the talent and conviction to turn it round into something both affecting and frightening. Nicole Kidman is a beautiful yet haunting presence as India’s mother, seemingly on a permanent knife edge between fragile grief in the wake of her husbands death or cautious glee at his brother’s youthful, charming energy. A single take monologue filmed in extreme close up late on in the drama where she rallies against her wasted opportunities and her disappointment in raising a child throbs with a tragic rage. Matthew Goode is a revelation as Uncle Charlie playing it straight like a more assured, sexually confident take on Norman Bates. The moment he appears on screen he immediately strikes you with handsome looks and expressive eyes whilst still managing to make the blood chill. His Charlie stands as a potential saviour to India’s lost little girl but never ceases to ooze malice with every single gaze. It takes a lot of talent to be frightening whilst doing very little and Goode simply excels at it.
Whether or not Chan-wook will continue to make films in America remains to be seen. It is refreshing to see a director move outside of their comfort zone and have some (if not complete) success. Had Stoker been helmed by a more mainstream and unadventurous filmmaker then it’s flaws may very well have increased tenfold. Though the violent flourishes (and live octopus eating) have been toned down, Chan-wook has taken a well worn genre piece and enlivened it with an energetic and pleasingly edgy vibe. Many may find the films full on macabre inflictions overbearing, others will find them intoxicating. Whichever side you come down on, it’s certainly never boring.