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In the early Noughties, South Korea led the cutting edge of world-class cinema, indisputably producing some of the most innovative, imaginative, and accomplished films of the new Millennium. Their critical and commercial success was in no small part to director Park Chan-wook, who first drew international acclaim with only his second feature, Joint Security Area: a riveting, twisting thriller set in the disputed ‘DMZ’ no-mans-land between North and South Korea.
Its success afforded him the creative freedom to pursuit what would become his signature pieces, the ‘Revenge Trilogy’, comprising Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy (for which he won the Grand Prix at Cannes), and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance. All are bewilderingly accomplished films, mesmeric in their composition, shocking in their content, and deeply, troublingly empathetic.
Since his Cannes win in 2004, Hollywood has knocked repeatedly at Park’s door, and he finally makes the transition with Stoker, allaying any fears that his formidable talents would somehow be lost in translation.
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is not all right: her father, in her own words, is dead, and she’s not happy about it. Compounding his sudden and unexpected demise is the appearance of his long lost brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), a charming, handsome black sheep with an unsettlingly lupine smile. When her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) announces that Charlie will be staying with them awhile, India is disturbed to find her dear Uncle Charlie usurping the space left by her deceased father. Who is this mysterious figure? What exactly does he want? As the mysteries mount, one thing seems certain: something isn’t right with Charlie. And then people start disappearing…
No one sees the world quite like Park Chan-wook; his is a vision totally unique to cinema. As beautiful as they are violent, hypnotically measured, and almost unbearably sensual, his films are masterpieces of technical craft, restraint, and atmosphere. A rare director who appreciates the narrative power of composition, images from his films linger long after the credits role, burrowing into the subconscious and taking root like a creeping cinematic vine. As divisive as his stories may be (his not entirely successful 2009 vampire film, Thirst, comes to mind), there’s no denying the competency with which they are executed. More often than not, his detractors reveal their own ignorance for filmic craft than highlight a legitimate flaw.
There’s no denying that Stoker is shockingly good filmmaking. Park’s images are both tactile and stark, playing with time and space, wrapping proceedings in a dreamy, nightmarish quality that borders on the supernatural. The various twists and turns of the narrative unfold gradually, but the film never bores: the hint of menace – a threat of unspeakable violence, real and imagined – sits just outside every frame, leading to a number of delightfully thrilling sequences and revelations.
Wentworth Miller’s debut screenplay is tightly composed and deliberately minimalist, a stylized and sinister melodrama that plays with just the right balance of pastiche and sincerity. Homage to any number of films riff from scene to scene – particularly Hitchcock’s Rope, Spellbound, and Rebecca – while fashioning a cinematic world entirely its own. A cool New England gothic with the sexuality of a Freudian dream, the unfolding events would not be out of place in a Shirley Jackson short story.
In less measured hands, Stoker could easily fall into B-grade territory, a twee Hitchcockian symphony of hysterical drama and ludicrousness. But between Miller’s winking script and Park’s playful modulation of moods – aided by an outstanding cast giving pitch-perfect performances – Stoker soars: an engrossing, shocking, and immensely satisfying slice of sensationally sinister cinema.