April issue 2013

By | Here and Now | Published 11 years ago

When South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook makes his first-ever English-language film, you watch — especially when the result is the seductive and enticing Stoker. Park Chan-wook’s Hollywood debut is so bizarrely twisted, that it amuses you and freaks you out in equal measure. The strength of Stoker lies in the casting — this horror-thriller hybrid rests on the shoulders of the innocent-looking Mia Wasikowska who gets rid of her innocence pretty quickly and shocks and delights us with a breathtaking performance of immense understanding and astute nuances.

Wasikowska plays India, a teenager who is mourning the death of her father. Her unstable mother, Evie (Nicole Kidman), finds solace in the arrival of her late husband’s long-lost brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode). Initially hostile towards her uncle, India soon finds herself drawn towards this charming man, whose ulterior machinations aren’t entirely foreseeable. The arrival of Uncle Charlie does not bode well for India’s relationship with Evie either; the mother-daughter bond is seriously disturbed by this unwanted intrusion of a third character.

This is a film that thrives on characterisation and the treatment of the script, rather than the narrative itself. What keeps cinegoers engrossed is the manner in which the characters interact with each other, driving the story forward. Individual shots, not lasting more than a few seconds, are self-contained masterpieces that add to the mystery. Take, for instance, one breathtaking inspiration of post-production: India is combing Evie’s hair which cross-dissolves majestically into a field of grass. Then there are the slightly more unsettling moments between India and Uncle Charlie, when they are playing the piano together, or drawing clear boundaries between family and friendship at the dinner table or taking a nightly stroll in the woods. The film is peppered with vivid imagery: a spider crawling up India’s leg, India sitting on a bed with shoes spiralling around her and a little boy creating a snow angel in sand.

The film pays homage to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, with clear references to ‘Uncle Charlie’ and the young girl who comes into her own as a woman. India’s character is also very reminiscent of Stephen King’s Carrie; one shower scene links the two characters in particular.

In Stoker, the family dynamics are interesting, to say the least; India is clearly fascinated by Charlie and aspires to be like him. As is so often the case in families, you revolt against your elders but can’t fight the fact that you are similar, or share certain familial characteristics. Charlie acts not only as a substitute for India’s father, but he becomes her idol. Charlie is a natural stimulant for India, in the physical as well as the psychological sense. He unlocks India’s inner, darker instincts by making her feel like his contemporary.

Despite drawing inspiration from classic horror tropes, Stoker feels very original and Park Chan-wook brings his own inimitable directorial flair to the film. It’s not entirely in the same vein as his Vengeance trilogy — it’s slightly more low-key — but Park has certainly created a lasting impression with his foray into Hollywood. Spike Lee’s remake of Park’s Oldboy is also slated for release this year but for now Stoker deserves repeat viewings for its excellent performances, stunning cinematography, innovative editing and brilliant musical score.

Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany