Friday, March 15, 2013


Over the past decade or so director Park Chan-Wook has been the crown jewel in South Korea's cinematic boom. Most known for his Vengeance Trilogy, Park has a knack for his ultra-violent tragic plots, complex, flashy visuals, and characters who have, at best, a messy moral compass. Now comes Stoker, his English language debut, a mad confection of Gothic, Noir elements, which at its heart is a coming-of-age story about a young girl dying to become a monster.

The girl is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska). The film opens on her 18th birthday as she learns of her father's death in a mysterious accident. At the funeral, she sees a man watching from the distance. The air ripples around him. He looks like he could be a specter or a mirage. At the reception the specter introduces himself as Charlie (Mathew Goode), a heretofore unknown uncle who has supposedly been traveling abroad for the past couple decades.

India is acutely suspicious of Charlie, particularly as people in her life start disappearing and freshly dug holes start appearing in the yard, but she's not terribly upset. There's something cold and reserved about her. Charlie might be a murderer and his increasingly inappropriate relationship with India's mother (Nicole Kidman in a wonderfully fragile performance) proves that he is certainly a master manipulator, but India is hardly a babe in the woods either. There's something dark in her that was once kept in check by her father and those frequent hunting trips he took her on, but is now running wild and unchecked with Charlie around. She doesn't care who killed her father, or about revenge, she's just caught up in the thrill of the hunt and satisfying her own longings.

Intriguingly perverse characters aside, the set-up threatens to be too familiar for its own good. In the hands of a lesser director, Stoker might have been a simple genre exercise resting too heavily on its Hitchcockian heritage, but Park is far too advanced a director for that. Instead he goes for broke imbuing the film with the kind of gonzo visual symbolism he's best known for. There's a running thing with spiders, piano's, spherical objects that are somehow linked to peoples animal nature not to mention a lot of kinky business with a leather belt that would make Freud blush.

Park sets up and repeats these images in subtle ways across the film. He'll also repeat certain scenes in a plainly contradictory form till we have no idea what is India's flashback and what is her increasingly sexual fantasy life. Park is also a master of intercutting. Durring one sequence he intercuts four or five different scenes, some of which may be flashbacks, another being narration from a nature documentary. But for all these complex scenes, there are also moments of touching simplicity. Look at another scene where India mourns her dead father by gathering the 18 pairs of shoes that he had given to her every year for her birthday. Park fades to each progressively smaller pair in way that makes them look like they're melting into each other as her psyche melts into a more childlike, animistic form.

Absolutely glorious cinema
I understand that at least some of these virtuoso sequences are in the script by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, but the complex execution and tone is classic Park. The film isn't clean cut about anything. It's all right angles and ambiguity. In anyone elses hands it might have fallen apart, but Park keeps the fever dream together while steering clear of a cliche Gothic Horror look with tremendous results.

For whatever reason, it can sometimes be tricky for foreign directors to make that first American film, particularly after becoming established in their own countries. Language can be a problem when working with actors, American sized budgets can mean a lot of restrictions in terms of content and then there are cultural differences. Those issues have defeated some great directors such as Truffaut and Wong Kar-Wai. It's likely that Park's contemporary Kim Ji-Woon faced all three issues earlier this year with with the critically maligned Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle The Last Stand.

But Park has navigated most of these issues successfully. Stoker is a uniquely striking, poetic slice of gothic horror. It's got some strong performances, some great music and remember opening credit sequences? Stoker's got a wonderful one. Perhaps the film is not in Park's top tier of masterpieces, but it's still a bold, distinctive tale of the darkness at the center of a young girls heart.

Grade: A-

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