South Korea is perhaps one of the most underrepresented countries when it comes to world cinema, with few, if any films ever achieving even the briefest fame overseas. Yet Park Chan-Wook made a deep impression on international audiences with the release of his twisted revenge thriller Oldboy, and is now set to make similar impressions with Stoker, his english language debut, featuring an all Western cast.
Following the mysterious death of her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is left with only her domineering and uncaring mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who seems to care little for her daughter and only the outward appearance of the family. The family mansion is not long empty however when Richard’s estranged brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) offers to move in, to the delight of Evelyn and the dismay of India.
Stoker shares many elements with the coming-of-age film, with its focus squarely on India and her changing identity and role in the family. However, as this is a Park Chan-Wook film, it’s a coming-of-age tale heavy with murder, psychosis and incest. In this respect it feels very much like a toned down Oldboy. The two films sharing similar themes and presentation, with a large emphasis on repeated symbols and audio allowing the audience to hear only what India hears, leading to a film often void of music adding to the tension.
In many ways, Stoker is perhaps a little too much style over substance. The script, whilst gripping and tense, could do with being fleshed out a little more, and some scenes seemed overly awkward due to the lack of dialogue. Whilst all characters are interesting, few if any are likable, Nicole Kidman creates a character that is easy to hate and yet one of the few who shows any real emotion, an interesting contrast to the often blank India.
Stoker contains heavy influences from Park Chan-Wook’s early revenge films, albeit in a reined-in manner. Much of this is due to the work of cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon who has worked on previous Wook films, his use of a surprisingly colourful pallet is remarkable and provides an interesting contrast to the dark and unsettling atmosphere. Indeed, at certain points the costumes, location and music can be much more akin to a Wes Anderson film, though this quickly dissipates once India or Charlie enter the scene. Matthew Goode in particular stands out with his superb portrayal of Charlie, based on the eponymous character from Hitchcock’s classic Shadow of a Doubt, with his seemingly effortless charm being contrasted with the silent rage in his eyes. Perhaps most tellingly for Stoker, there are few smiles and when they do they appear they are often forced or sarcastic.
Stoker is a bizarre film on paper: a colourful, Hitchcockian, coming-of-age drama, featuring an all Western cast and a Korean director. Yet it works, it works superbly well and is definitely one of the most interesting psychological thrillers I have seen for a long time. Perhaps in the future we may see more international directors taking the approach of Park Chan-Wook, making films outside their native cultures, as Stoker and The Raid show, the results can be superb.