Duration: 99 mins
Stoker opens with the film’s ending: an oddly juxtaposed shot of Mia Wasikowska’s India strutting across a highway in a pair of heels and into an overgrown layby. We’re not sure what’s going on, but are fed subliminally as director Chan-wook Park intends for us to savour and recall this information and contextualise later on. And that is what audiences are presented with in what is his debut English language film after a string of acclaimed Korean works that include Old Boy and Thirst.
Subtextually, Stoker teases and tantalises with its vampiric parallels that include a murderous blood lust, sexual awakening, generational grooming and incestual behaviour -- the latter being a recurring theme through Park’s filmography, as it is transferred into this seemingly timeless drama with acute detail and to deft effect.
What’s most striking is the visceral direction; structurally, it focuses on a slow-burning story with its off-centre framing and tranquil performances that give the film an overall eerie and unsettling quality. This unease is accentuated by the sublime use of heightened sound that really awakens the aural senses with the crisp dripping of water, for example, that Park uses to overt effect.
Instead of a somewhat forced, clunky transition from ultra violent, extreme Korean cinema into the Hollywood mainstream, a huge degree of integrity and, to an extent, auteurism remains. Park maintains an independent stance in his filmmaking that distances itself from the Hollywood system, yet at the same time includes known names like Matthew Goode, Mia Wasikowska and, more famously, Nicole Kidman. All three assume subtle, yet captivating roles, as each carefully orchestrated character slots perfectly into this seemingly unspecified setting that could be anywhere from the 1920s to modern day Americana. At one point though, it does define the exact time through a forthcoming exchange between India (Wasikowska) and Charlie (Goode), but manages to feel so effortlessly unspecific by its nature.
The premise is a creepy enough concept on its own: with the death of her father, India’s repressed, virginal self begins to evolve as her Uncle Charlie appears out the blue to console her and mother Evelyn (Kidman). She represents a sexually repressed, lonely single parent longing for a man’s touch and general companionship. Rather than develop as a narrative powerhouse, the film carefully treads a path of character study and suggestiveness as a result of their actions and choices. In fact, the focal point is on India’s sexual awakening, as Uncle Charlie begins a sensual and seductive objective to unlock her deepest, darkest desires, or indeed exploit Evelyn’s vulnerability as an unloved human merely existing. And it’s these fascinating traits and ambivalency that form the most frictional of threesomes as far as its central protagonists go.
Not a lot goes on plot-wise in Stoker, but what’s significant is the rich subtext and reading between the lines of the beautiful composition, minimalist performances and subtlety of dialogue. It’s unfortunate that this particular approach to storytelling and its hidden depths might turn some viewers off, but this slice of American Gothic disguised as a period piece is not only haunting and engrossing, but wonderfully conceived, too. Start as you mean to go on, Mr. Park.