When I first heard that one of my favourite directors was leaving his native Korea to make an English language film I was excited but also as worried as when I heard Spike Lee was remaking Oldboy. My worry grew when earlier this year Kim Ji-woon’s US debut The Last Stand failed to live up to his back catalogue. In Stoker though, director Park Chan-wook has created a film which I believe can sit happily alongside his previous films. Stoker is unmistakably a Park Chan-wook film and he has lost nothing in translation. It is as dark and stylish as you’d expect from the director of Thirst and I’m a Cyborg and features a typically bold and beautiful colour palate.
Following the death of Richard Stoker, his enigmatic younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to stay with his wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and teenage daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). Uncle Charlie was previously unknown to India as he was never mentioned by her father. India is slow to accept Charlie into the family but a tender bond slowly forms between the two cold and indecipherable people. India remains apprehensive though and Charlie’s motives for the sudden visit remain unclear.
Stoker is the most beautiful film I’ve seen since Life of Pi. I personally believe that there is no director working today who is capable of making films as visually stunning as Park on a consistent basis. Park brings with him his long time cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon who helps to create the startling imagery. Park’s films stand out on their own for the sharpness of each line and contour seen on screen. It sometimes looks as though someone has drawn around every single line with a thin black pen to separate each person and object. It’s a remarkable and telltale sign that you are watching a Park Chan-wook film. Something else which is unmistakably Park is the vibrant colour palate. The film was so bright and colourful that the red brick and grey sky of Manchester felt washed out in comparison on my drive home. Each colour on screen perfectly complements its neighbours and is stronger than you’d expect. Kidman’s bright orange hair shines against her ivory skin which is set off beautifully against a bright blue dress. The house in which the plot mostly takes place is full of deep and unusual colours such as dark purples and pastel lime greens. It reminded me a lot of Park’s segment Cut in the film Three Extremes.
Inside the central house it feels as though time stands still. From what you see inside alone it would be difficult to place the movie into any particular time period. The plot could equally be taking place in 1960 or 2013. It is only when the action is taken outside that the modern world encroaches on the eerily still waters that lie inside the house. The costumes are stunning and appear to place the film in the early 60s. Park’s direction is, thankfully, perfect for Stoker. He captures the unusual angles and quirky moments perfectly with his trademark framing and moving camera. The sets, cinematography, camera trickery and movement all add up to make Stoker sublimely beautiful.
I always try to avoid trailers and reviews for films before seeing them myself but what little I’d heard of Stoker gave the impression that it was a film of style over substance. I disagree with this assessment. I think the movie has the substance to match the style. The plot is very Hitchcockian in its tentative build up of apprehension and had the film been made fifty or sixty years ago I could see Hitchcock directing it. The creeping sense of fear and danger follows Hitch’s work closely and even the character of Uncle Charlie shares many of the character traits of the character of the same name in Hictchcock’s 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt. Both Charlie’s show signs of predatory and incestuous behaviour and both, it feels, are capable of inflicting pain and suffering on those who get in the way. Both men turn up out of the blue and both are charming and seductive. Matthew Goode even has a look of Joseph Cotten about him.
One of the film’s central themes is sexual awakening and the search for who you are. India begins the film as a child in a woman’s body and slowly discovers her sexual side, albeit with the help of her mother and uncle. A turning point is the incredible piano scene which begins as a slow dance, building slowly before becoming entangled like an erupting orgasm. The music mirrors the feelings of passion and excitement as toes are curled in ecstasy. It’s an astonishing scene and a watershed moment for the film. My girlfriend felt that the film went off the boil in the final third but for me it remained true to its earlier promise. India is trying to decide who and what she is and at various times attempts to become each of her three role models from her hunter father, vixen like mother and hawk like uncle Charlie. Stoker is about self discovery and the trials one must go through in order to find out who you really are.
The relationship between India and Charlie is one full of menace and danger but also great beauty. There are obvious creepy moments as the couple are related but there is also an innocence and sense that both are leading each other towards becoming who they really are. Mia Wasikowska is brilliant as India. I’ve been a fan of hers since Alice in Wonderland and she was great in The Kids are All Right but she has never been better than this. She carries much of the film on her young shoulders and never feels out of place as the Wednesday Addams-esque grieving teen. Nicole Kidman continues her run of choosing films wisely and is also outstanding as the mother. Matthew Goode is also excellent as Charlie. He is dark, mysterious and cold but chillingly charming and plays the role pitch perfect.
Overall I thought Stoker was a fantastic film and I really want to see it again already. It was incredibly beautiful, the sound and score were great and the acting was wonderful. The plot chugs along, full of mystery and intrigue and for me it is strong right to the very end. I’m really happy that Park Chan-wook has continued his strong run of powerful, beautiful and challenging films while working in unfamiliar surroundings. Long may his run continue.
- The movie was written under a pseudonym by actor Wentworth Miller of Prison Break fame.
- The script was included on 2010s 'Black List' - the list of best unproduced scripts in Hollywood.
- Carey Mulligan and Jodie Foster were originally cast but dropped out.