Directed by Park Chan-Wook
One of the bigger films to debut this year during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival was South Korean director Park Chan-Wook's highly anticipated Stoker, his first foray into English-language filmmaking. Working from a script written by Wentworth Miller (yes, the guy from "Prison Break"), director Park explores the idea of what creates human monsters in Stoker, not necessarily vampirism as the title might suggest, all while still proving that his masterful touch with offbeat and thought-provoking material translates well in any language.
Stoker follows a seemingly ordinary family forced to deal with the untimely death of Michael (Dermot Mulroney), husband to the cold and distant Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and father to the awkward India (Mia Wasikowska), who happens to be celebrating her 18th birthday the very day that her father dies while on a last minute road trip. Before Michael's body is even settled in the ground, his mysterious long-lost brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), arrives to pay his respects and get to know the family he's never met before.
Of course, there's far more than meets the eye with good ol' Uncle Charlie, but rather than call him out on his sinister ways, young India becomes increasingly infatuated with her ever-influential and charismatic uncle as manages to weave himself in deeper and deeper within their familial unit. Unfortunately for the teenager, though, her uncle has taken up seducing the emotionally starved Evelyn, who never received the kind of love she so desperately wanted from either her husband or her daughter.
And as tensions continue to rise, a disturbing love triangle begins to emerge and secrets are revealed to all, and that's when Stoker really goes into some wickedly weird and wonderfully twisted territory (and to say anything more would be giving away all the wonderful surprises director Park and screenwriter Miller have woven into this haunting coming of age tale) that should undoubtedly satisfy Park's longtime fans out there who have been waiting patiently for him to make the jump and take on some Hollywood projects after a successful career in South Korea.
As a storyteller, Park has been often revered (and rightly so) throughout his career for his innovative approach to stylized violence and challenging material as well as his love of an off-kilter story structure, which has won him legions of fans worldwide throughout his career. And while this writer would consider Stoker to be the 'safest' of Park's cinematic endeavors, by no means does it ever feel like Park's vision was stifled at all by trying to 'fit in' with American cinema standards either (which are of course generally less daring than many of the films coming out of South Korea and many other foreign countries as well).
Director Park also once again delivers a wonderfully mesmerizing visual masterpiece with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, allowing the camera to often do most of the heavy lifting throughout the film. With a sparse and often uneven script to work from, the reason Stoker succeeds can be contributed to Park's absolutely pristine attention to detail; from the stunning uses of lighting and costumes to the vivid and lush production design, every detail in the film felt purposeful and packed with emotion, demonstrating that Park's impeccable attention to detail certainly hasn't waned over time.
Chung somehow manages to take even the simplest of shots - whether it be of a very awkward family dinner or blades of tall grass glistening in the glow of a setting sun or even a small child making sand angels with an unusually devilish smile upon his face - and make them all feel like a works of art brought to life on the big screen.
Something I don't often discuss in movie reviews is sound design, but with Stoker the sound of the film is almost as integral as the visuals in creating a cinematic triumph; because we've been told that India has some sort of supernatural senses (including hearing) early on, Park uses that to manipulate his viewers' senses by delivering a film with sound so vibrant, it's almost like we've become India and developed our own superior hearing capabilities. Stoker also features a fantastic score by Clint Mansell that I'd highly recommend to those of you who consider yourselves fans of that sort of thing- this writer found it to be by far one of the more memorable scores I've encountered in some time, and the way it balances out against the sound design is something of a marvel.
Quite simply, Stoker is challenging, haunting and hypnotic- pretty much everything you'd want from a film helmed by the man behind the cult classics Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. As the story slowly unravels and Park begins to reveal just one piece of the puzzle at a time, he keeps audiences completely engaged throughout Stoker, almost acknowledging that he's screwing with your own perceptions of good and evil through his wonderful visual style and challenging characters that will undoubtedly leave you fascinated, frustrated, intrigued and completely mesmerized by from beginning to end.
And while Stoker may not necessarily rank up there amongst those other classic films from the visionary filmmaker, it's Park's masterful direction and a trio of stunning performances by Goode, Kidman and Wasikowska that elevates the project beyond its often shallow and silly script making it still a great slice of cinematic gold. Many will be turned off by its superficial and oddball tendencies, but longtime Park fans will undoubtedly delight in Stoker's striking visuals and Park's haunting exploration of how human monsters are made, making an unforgettable (albeit uneven) thriller by one of the finest modern filmmakers out there working today.
4 out of 5