A few months ago, I wrote a review for Kim Jee-Woon’s The Last Stand which was less than complimentary. For all its bluster, the film was a rather weak entry for Jee-Woon into North American cinema. Happily, Park Chan-Wook’s Stoker breaks that trend and reveals itself a wonderfully off-beat and deliciously sinister success. If you didn’t get a chance to see Stoker in theatres, I am here to tell you to check it out now that it is on DVD.
On the surface, Stoker is a surprisingly subdued choice for the director of Old Boy. One would have supposed the director of the internationally acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy would have exploded onto the North American screen with a little bit more blockbuster flair. However, fans of Chan-Wook should not be so surprised by this. Films like the deranged, frenetic comedy I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok or his short film Night Fishing, which played at Fantasia in 2011, have proven that Chan-Wook is no one-trick-pony and Stoker only reinforces that fact.
The basic premise of Stoker is a playful re-fashioning of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 classic Shadow of a Doubt. India Stoker—played by Mia Wasikowski—is a young girl mourning the accidental death of her father when a suspicious man arrives at her house claiming to be her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Uncle Charlie clearly has a more than familial interest in India while her mother, Evelyn Stoker—played by the ever talented Nicole Kidman—is enthralled with infatuation for the young surrogate patriarch.
What ensues is a bizarre and incestuous love triangle which is as twisted as it is captivating. Add to that a good bit of violence and sexual perversity and it is easy to see why Chan-Wook was attracted to the project. However, more than an homage to Hitchcock, Stoker feels more reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s early 80s Hitchcockian thrillers like Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, or Body Double with its visual flair and dynamic experimentation.
Stoker is essentially a closed-space drama, the majority of the film taking place within the large Gothic country home of India and her mother. Closed-space films can often fall prey to feeling claustrophobic or even stagnant because of the limited environment of the film. However, this is where Chan-Wook truly delivers. His ceaselessly inventive and buoyant sense of playful experimentation allows the film to never feel claustrophobic or constricted. In fact, in every way imaginable, Stoker is a show piece for Chan-Wook’s cinematic mastery. The mise-en-scene is meticulously designed with an attention to detail and aesthetics not seen, perhaps, since Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Furthermore, Chan-Wook’s immense care for sensuous and tactile details recalls Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, where a heightened perception of the corporeal world creates a world that is at once enrapturing and intoxicating.
However, where Chan-Wook really shines is in dynamic camera work. The camera work can only be compared in mastery and fluidity to that of Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès or The Earrings of Madame de…. Watching Stoker it’s difficult to bring to mind another director working today who is as relentlessly inventive and explorative in all aspects of filmmaking. Stoker is easily a film that could have fallen below the radar of serious consideration. However, thanks to Chan-Wook’s truly phenomenal directing, it is elevated to the status of a near masterpiece. The film eludes the title of masterpiece due to a large degree because of the script, which begins to fall apart near the end of the film, but it comes close. One thing is sure however, no matter in what language or country, Park Chan-Wook is a name to look out for, and with Fantasia right around the corner this is a great film to get into the groove.