Park Chan-wook is a filmmaker who frustrates me. His 2003 film Oldboy is pretty much a new classic at this point; it’s a bold and exciting thriller, the kind of left-of-the-dial genre film that had genuine crossover appeal. It was a film that would be entertaining not just to art house audiences or to genre enthusiasts, it was the kind of movie you could recommend to pretty much anyone provided they could handle its sometimes graphic violence. It brought attention not just to Park Chan-wook himself but to a whole world of like-minded thrillers from South Korea and from elsewhere in East Asia. The thing is, and I think I’m in the minority on this one; Chan-wook has never really made another film that comes close to working as anywhere near as well as Oldboy. Believe me, I’ve tried to get into other Chan-wook films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK, and Thirst. Every one of those movies has a number of interesting things in them, none of them have been successful in their totality. That’s what drives me nuts about the guy, he has a lot of good ideas but they get bogged down by all of the guy’s other strange decisions.
Chan-wook’s latest film is called Stoker and it’s his first non-Korean film. It looks at a strange family that lives in a mansion in the rural outskirts of a small town somewhere in the American heartland, specifically a teenage girl named India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska). The film begins shortly after India’s father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), has been killed in a car crash. Attending the funeral is Richard’s estranged brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), who offers to move in with India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) in Richard’s absence. India is not comfortable with this arrangement and grows increasingly suspicious about exactly who Charlie is and what he’s up to.
I think the main reason I’ve had trouble with Park Chan-wook’s filmmaking is that the characters in his films seem to just behave oddly. They seem to live in an alternate universe where people react to situations in unusual ways and they speak in strange patterns that are generally unrecognizable. I thought that to some extent this might have just been a cultural difference (although I’ve seen plenty of Korean films that don’t have this problem), and I was kind of hoping that a move to a new location would burst this bubble a little, but it really didn’t. In fact, the characters in Stoker seem just as strange as the characters in his Korean films and it seems all the more odd here because I know the language that’s being spoken and know for a fact that people don’t use it the way it’s being used here. Some of the weirdness could be excused if it was confined to the film’s strange titular family, but the people in the town can act just as bizarrely at times. India’s school seems to be populated by extreme bullies who think it’s appropriate to try to straight up punch at a female, and the one seemingly nice guy at the school seems to turn into some kind of rapist on a dime at one point.
This is a film is about a teenage girl who comes to learn that her uncle named Charlie might be some kind of evil person is clearly a nod toward Hitchcock’s 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt. Both Chan-wook and screenwriter Wentworth Miller have acknowledged this influence in interviews, and I’ve got to say, the comparison is not flattering for Stoker. While Joseph Cotton’s Uncle Charlie seemed like a genuinely likable person when he showed up in Hitchcock’s film, Matthew Goode seems like a straight-up unhinged lunatic from pretty much the second we see him here, and yet we’re supposed to believe that the Nicole Kidman character is going to be oblivious to this and allow him into her home.
As is often the case of Park Chan-wook’s films, there’s a lot of good mixed in with the bad. The film has some really interesting editing in it and also some really cool cinematography. There are some interesting scenes and a couple of other neat little twisted moments, but once again all of this is undercut but the rest of Chan-wook’s style. All of these things could also be said about Olboy, but Oldboy had something that neither this nor any of Chan-wook’s other films have really had and that’s energy. It was a movie that was so well paced that all the off-putting quirks didn’t stand out nearly as much as they do here. And so, I’m once again forced to ponder what this film would have been like if Chan-wook had just been able to if he’d just adopt a more naturalistic mode of storytelling.
** out of Four