This seems to be shaping up as the year Hollywood imports its freshest directing talent from Korea. Earlier we saw Kim Ji-woon’s breakout in The Last Stand — the Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle that was, if nothing else, far superior to the atrocious Bullet to the Head. And now Park Chan-wook takes his rightful place as one of the current masters of suspense with Stoker. Fans of Korean cinema and some followers of genre film are already well familiar with his precise attention to detail and intense — sometimes disturbing — material. Now even those who are allergic to subtitles can get in on the action.
The Stoker family lives in rural Connecticut, in a house that seems tailor made for a gothic horror story. Isolated even from the nearby country road, it’s quiet and still, seemingly timeless. The family is evidently wealthy, marked by a certain cold formality, at least between India (Mia Wasikowska) and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). It seems that India was closer to her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney); she was fond of hunting with him, and they had a running game where each year on her birthday she would have to find her present somewhere on the grounds: a box containing a new pair of saddle shoes. But on her eighteenth birthday, the box instead contains an old key. It’s also the day her father dies in a car accident in Pennsylvania, and the day India starts to come into her inheritance.
Funerals always bring out distant relatives, and this one turns up India’s long-lost uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode), who has been travelling the world for twenty years. The next day the Stokers’ housekeeper (Phyllis Somerville) leaves without so much as a word; Charlie takes over the cooking. Charlie and Richard’s auntie Gin (Jacki Weaver) turns up at the door, begging to speak with Evelyn privately about Charlie, but Evelyn has grown unexpectedly close to Charlie, and she sends auntie Gin away. India herself is ambivalent about Charlie: resentful of her mother’s attraction so soon after the death of her father, she finds him queerly fascinating at the same time.
Screenwriter Wentworth Miller — better known as an actor in the television series Prison Break — clearly shows a broad knowledge of suspense, which matches well with Park’s own. The title clearly recalls Bram Stoker, and thus vampire stories and their conventions. “Uncle Charlie” brings up Shadow of a Doubt, and Hitchcock along with it. The film is shot through with such references, and Park is just the director to bring each one into the light without being heavy-handed about it. But in Park’s films, nothing may be as it seems, and while Miller’s script pays homage to these past masters, it is hardly constrained by them.
Park is known for, if nothing else, his precise and gorgeous framings. His camera glides through a scene, catching exactly what he wants us to see. When shakier hand-held work does show up, it has a meaning and a purpose. Every single shot and cut — and seemingly every mannerism and line delivery — has been storyboarded early on in the process, and this meticulous care pays off, especially in the many fantastic and inventive transitions.
With his hyper-stylized approach and his embrace of difficult and disturbing subject matter, Park Chan-wook seems to be Korea’s answer to David Cronenberg. Now that he’s established some Hollywood credibility, American audiences should be looking forward to much more from him.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.