Chan-wook Park returns with his first film on American soil, beating the Hollywood remake of his own Oldeuboi (directed by Spike Lee no less). Not many Asian directors are capable of making the transit to Hollywood, let alone succeed there, but Park seems to be on to something here. Stoker turned out to be a refreshingly unique film, not quite American but not quite Asian either, living in an entirely new league of its own.
I'm not a very big Chan-wook Park fan. I did like Saibogujiman Kwenchana (a lot), but never got into his Vengeance trilogy and I was seriously disappointed by his part in Sam Gang Yi. Of all the Asian styles of cinema, The South-Korean one is probably the easiest to combine with the Hollywood way of working (Jee-woon Kim made the same transition this year with The Last Stand) and when the best of both worlds collide it does amount into a more stylish end result.
Even though the actors, the setting and the themes are all very American, from the very first seconds it's obvious that this isn't going to be your average Hollywood flick (or American Indie film for that matter). The pacing, the mood, the dialogues, the sound, the camera work ... Park mangles everything, looking to bring a new impulse to the American market. The opening reflects this. Park plays with heightened sounds, freeze frames, shadows and framing to create a very unique, dark and unsettling introduction.
Stoker is the story of India, the introverted and somewhat morbid daughter of the Stoker family. A family blessed with extraordinary hearing skills. India's father just died in a car accident and the bond with her mother isn't half as strong. Their lives are turned further upside down when India's uncle Charlie turns up out of nowhere and decides to move in with them. Charlie is a charismatic man, but one that hides a darker truth.
Stoker is a very classic-looking film, enriched with more modern details. The entire setting is old-fashioned (even though the film is clearly set in the present) strengthened by a murkier color palette, but the camera work betrays a more modern vision. Park dances with his camera through the film, playing with sets and characters, while also spending a lot of time toying around with shadows. The effect is stunning, even though it's not that easy to catch in mere stills.
The soundtrack follows a similar direction. The music is pretty classical in nature, but the extra-ordinary hearing capabilities of the family gives Park a good excuse to play around with the sound in order to create a darker, creepier and more unreal atmosphere. The dialogues too do their part in creating a more unique sound experience as they are often stilted and awkward, introducing a lot of unnatural silences.
Mia Wasikowska takes up the role of India. It's quite a shift from the innocent girl she played in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland but she does a good job portraying what is essentially a more serious version of Wednesday Addams. Matthew Goode is excellent as Charlie, bringing both charisma and a darker edge to his character, while Nicole Kidman isn't too bad as India's mother. She's clearly outclassed by the actors around her though. It seems like her acting skills somehow deteriorated together with her natural wrinkles.
Stoker is a film that crawls underneath your skin. It isn't a very direct film, very little is explained and the story itself (except the ending) doesn't give much way for building up tension. But because of Park's stylistic choices a tangible tension does form almost out of thin air. The final act explains a couple of things, but Park never reveals the film's true mystery, keeping the unsettling edge almost entirely intact when the end credits start rolling.
Stoker was a very pleasant discovery. I didn't expect too much from it, but from the very first moments the film pulled me in and never let go after that. Even though the bottom line may be just a little too classic for my taste, Park does great things with it and delivers a memorable film that is easy to recommend to those with a taste for something different, even when the film itself is build on a very classic frame.