Friday, 16 August 2013


Following the death of her father, India Stoker (Wasikowska) meets her charismatic uncle; a man she never knew existed. When he moves in to comfort India and her mother, Evelyn (Kidman), the two find that the newest member of the family might actually be their worst nightmare. It’s clear from the start that there’s more to this family than meets the eye, and the arrival of Charles (Goode) stirs up trouble for the entire clan. Everybody is acting strange and Park Chan-wook takes great pride in stirring the pot, adding extra spice to the darkness bubbling under the surface.

India is a curious beast, somewhere between Clare Danes and Winona Ryder. In fact, there were times when I expected Christina Ricci to knock on the door and introduce herself as a distant cousin. Mia Wasikowska (Jayne Eyre) is extraordinary though, putting the capital ‘P’ in peculiar. India is a solitary girl, socially inept, distant and unsociable. Much like all of the characters, India struggles to make a connection with the people in her life, and the awkward sexual tension between her and Charles is the closest we get to raw emotion. Creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky, Mia injects Alice with malice and drags her kicking and screaming out of Wonderland.

Park Chan-wook is a master behind the lens and Stoker overflows with exquisite camera angles and cinematic flare. It’s the little things that matter in life and Park doesn’t waste a single shot; strands of hair that turn into cornfields, harvest spiders haunting every frame. Park treats the camera as an artist would his canvas, painting regular strokes of grandeur over the cracks of a creaking screenplay.

Thirst was a fresh twist on the vampire sub-genre but Stoker – despite some obvious references – refuses to walk that path. Wentworth Miller (Prison Break) wears his Hitchcockian influence like an all-encompassing tattoo, despite citing Dracula as his main inspiration. There’s a touch of Psycho thrown in – though that could have more to do with Park’s own obsession with the master of suspense – but Stoker is more or less a reimagining of 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt. The first act walks a fine line between abstract and intrigue, before loosing its way to familiarity and convention. Park finds himself in comfortable terrain as the final act descends, but the ending disappoints with its lack of wonder.

Ambiguity is lost in favour of indolent plot mechanics and well-worn traits. It’s not like Park is new to this game, his vengeance trilogy hit upon similar beats time and time again. Stoker however remains artful not essential. The violence is more restrained this time out, almost as though the Korean auteur is all too aware of his new surroundings. Anyone expecting the final act intensity of Lady Vengeance will be disheartened by the lack of invention, humour and heart. Stoker unfortunately, like most of its characters, is an empty vessel in need of true essence.

Park and Miller have created a nightmarish world that revels in darkness and distance. The imagery is sublime but the characters are lacking in human touch. Everybody is so damn bizarre, so disengaging; it’s impossible to connect with them on an emotional level. Stoker is seductive, creepy, twisted and cruel but a lack of realism softens the blow of apprehension. Performances can’t be blamed; Goode’s smarmy seduction shtick is expertly sold, and Kidman walks a fine line between domineering and desperate. It’s the lack of connection that hampers Stoker’s attainment.

The ending falls flat but the same can’t be said for Park’s direction. Provocative, majestic and richly rewarding, Park is the reason you’ll want to check this out, not for the love of hackneyed plotting. Intriguing but ultimately disappointing, Stoker is blessed with stunning lead turns, a wonderful score and awe-inspiring visual splendour. Miller’s script touches on greatness at times but loses its way down a vacuous rabbit hole, lacking in genuine warmth and wonder.

The good outweighs the bad, and this English language debut is still a considerable success, but Park’s previous prosperity is also his undoing. We expect more from him in this genre and his time will come again. Whether we will see it watered down in Hollywood remains to be seen. AW

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