Eight years ago I walked the frosted Utah streets as a wide-eyed young man, ready for his first taste of the Sundance Film Festival. It was an interesting year for films here in Park City, and while many of us were taking part in the mind-numbingly harsh hazing process that accompanies ones first trip to Sundance, elsewhere in the festival a Korean Director was experiencing a little initiation of his own.
That Director was Park Chan-Wook, who that year had two films circulating the cineplexes of the Festival’s “Theater Loop”. One of them was the career defining chapter of his Revenge trilogy Oldboy, the other was a segment in the terrifying horror compilation Three Extremes.
At the time I didn’t know quite what to make of these films. I had been to film school and heard countless teachers recount the immense brilliance of film makers like Welles, Hitchcock and Kubrick, but until then my professors had led me to believe that this old school breed of cinematic genius could never again be reborn. It reminds me of those who still lament the death of Elvis, believing that idols could never again be created, only dismantled and destroyed. But when I think back to 2005, I think back to how these clichéd dinosaur curators of the past had been inexplicably proved wrong. When I first saw those frames flicker on screen, I was in fact witnessing the coming of the new breed of auteur, and similar to the way Cosmologists count the days between celestial events, I too counted the days until I once again would cross paths with a Chan-Wook film in Park City. That day was today, and that film was Stoker.
Stoker opens among aftermath of a terrible family tragedy. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has just lost her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) in a horrific car accident, and is left to mourn amongst the expansive grounds of her sequestered Gothic estate in the care of her despondent and uncaring mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). However the Stoker women are about to receive a most mysterious guest, one that will send the family spiraling in a sea of turmoil. India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom even her mother has only heard named in passing, has decided to pay a visit, and though her Uncle appears charismatic and genial it soon becomes evident that something dark and peculiar lurks beneath his charm.
Director Park Chan-Wook loves to develop strong female characters whose wits and ferocity match, and at times, surpass those of their male counterparts. When we see Mia Wasikowsa’s character at the beginning of the film, many of us think back to her more recent role as the sweet and innocent Alice in Tim Burton’s butchering of Alice In Wonderland. Chan-Wook is very aware of how his audience will associate with her and uses this to his distinct advantage. Much like in Alice, Mia is draped in a variety of gorgeous dresses giving the outward appearance of an elegant swan, utterly betraying the fact that India is in fact a lioness. Wasikowska’s character both enticing and intriguing and she transitions seamlessly into the dark world that exists in her Director’s mind. Her character is instantly memorable and puts her on the same level of the other amazing women from Chan-Wook’s Revenge films.
At first, Matthew Goode’s portrayal of the cold and calculating Uncle Charlie, seemed a little off to me His work in previous films like Match Point and A Single Man stand as testaments to the man’s ability to act, but I initially found myself thinking there was a sort of comical flatness that seemed to accompany every spoken line. I was initially going to chalk this up to perhaps a Director/Actor communication flaw caused by the language barrier on set, but as the film progressed, I began to realize that Chan-Wook is the type of Director who never does anything without intent. There is something very off-putting about Goode’s delivery in the first Stoker‘s first act, and I imagine that this was intentionally done in order to help the audience come to the inevitable conclusion that something was truly wrong with Uncle Charlie. When viewed as a whole, I feel that Goode has put forth a performance that would surely make Bret Easton Ellis scream with delight.
Much like many of Park Chan-Wook’s films, Stoker is cinematically stylish, and really is a film professor’s wet dream. Instead of bringing in all the usual film crew suspects from Korea, Wook chooses to tap some new talent, enlisting the help of Golden Globe Nominated composer Clint Mansell, whose chilling score pairs beautifully with the masterfully practiced cuts of editor Nicholas De Toth. However when it comes to camera work and lighting, Chan-Wook knew that his only logical choice was to bring back Director of Photography Chung-Hoon Chung, whose brilliant cinematography dances across the eyes like a dose of visual ecstasy.
In the many years that I have been coming to this Festival, not once have I ever seen a film that floored me enough to make me want to attend subsequent viewings. I can say with certainty that Stoker is to be the first to do this. Many times when a foreign film Director tries to translate his style to Hollywood, we see the same kind of failings such as we did when Jean-Pierre Jeunet attempted a foray into the Alien Universe. Stoker proves that not only can Park Chan-Wook do what others like Polanski and Jeunet have sometimes failed to do, but he can do it with just the same amount of gusto and which panache that made all of his Korean films so damn good. On whole Stoker stands as a masterpiece, delivering thrills as chilling as Pycho, and cementing the idea that Park Chan-Wook really is the Hitchcock for a new generation of moviegoers.