Stoker – Park Chan-wook keeps it in the family

The South Korean director Park Chan-wook, who gave us a trilogy of affecting revenge flicks (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance), as well as a kooky tale of romance (I’m a Cyborg) and a creepy, atmospheric vampire horror (Thirst), has now made his first film in the English-language with Stoker. Will his style translate? Or will it be lost in this new tale of family, secrets and death?

India (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18. However this birthday is a far from happy occasion: that same day her father (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a tragic car accident. Her mother (Nicole Kidman) mourns openly, but India becomes reclusive and silent. India’s interest is piqued though when a new family member comes to stay after the funeral: her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). She has never met him before, but India can immediately see there is more to this new relative than at first meets her eye…

While Park Chan-wook has clearly proven what a brilliant and distinctive director he is with his past work, this is not only the first time he has directed something in the English-language, but also the first time he has made something that was not written by him in some capacity (he is co-writer on most of his previous works). This time the script is written by Wentworth Miller (yes, him of Prison Break fame). While his screenplay is excellent, you get the feeling that under different guidance Stoker could have been just another run-of-the-mill drama about secrets and the return of a strange stranger. Under Park Chan-wook though Stoker has become a masterful film that reflects its themes perfectly and succinctly, proving he can direct others’ stories as well as his own. That’s not to say that the script is in any way bad. Miller has written a concise story that at a glance seems simplistic, but is all the more beautiful and affecting for this. He relishes in the quiet moments throughout, knowing that a silent action can say a lot more than any dialogue can. Miller then gradually builds up the darkness of his tale as it becomes more morbid with each twist and turn and as more secrets become unearthed by India.

The look and design of the film perfectly heightens the atmosphere of Miller’s story. Park Chan-wook directs the film with such care and attention to detail that it is obvious that every single shot has been carefully designed beforehand. Every moment is also beautifully and expertly shot by his regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, creating an ethereal style that reflects the eerie tone of the narrative without overclouding the story itself.

Mia Wasikowska makes for a superb lead as India. She reflects her curiosity effortlessly and reflects what the character thinks even when she is stoically quiet, which India is most of the time. She grows in the role as India herself grows onscreen. Matthew Goode is also brilliant as Uncle Charlie – charismatic and alluring, while clearly hinting that something else lurks behind his nice demeanour. In comparison to these lead performances Nicole Kidman gets left behind. The role becomes a minor role and she doesn’t excel when she should, with the exception of a final poignant scene between her and India. But she is always eclipsed by everyone else. Jacki Weaver and Phyllis Somerville both leave more of a mark as two minor characters who seem to know something about Charlie that no-one else knows. Weaver in particular is stunning as Gwendolyn Stoker, a visiting relative who wears a permanent wide smile but who hides fear beneath that acerbic grin.

Stoker is a gem of a film that in my eyes is flawless. Perfectly directed, designed and shot, everything onscreen feels like it has meaning to it – and it probably does. The story itself could have made for an average drama under someone else’s direction. But Park Chan-wook clearly understands the subject matter behind the story; of growing pains and the more macabre tale of deadly family secrets. His style reflects these issues perfectly creating an atmospheric mood piece that is affecting and memorable. It is already in my top ten films of the year.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on March 15, 2013.

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