Upon the death of her father, the lives of India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) are shaken by the sudden appearance of the mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode).
The talent behind Stoker is certainly interesting: it is based on a blacklisted screenplay by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller and marks the English language debut of acclaimed director Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, Thirst). For fans of Chan-Wook’s earlier Korean Language films, it is difficult to say whether or not Stoker would match up to the expectations that might be placed on this film.
The way in which he expertly creates an unsettling and evocative atmosphere throughout does indicate that he has not compromised what made his previous films so watchable; his artistry seems to have made it to America very much intact. Despite this, the narrative complexity of a film like Oldboy is nowhere to be found here, instead the plot seems to be sacrificed in favour of style and mood.
The performances are certainly strong, with Kidman suitably unstable and Wasikowska the sulky emotional teenager equally as good, but it’s Goode as the villain that proves to be strongest of the three, a menacing but soft presence that underpins the film. The real “star” of Stoker though is the tone. Whilst the acting is serviceable, Chan-Wook goes to great lengths to cultivate a mysterious and tense atmosphere – a technique that relegates its actors almost to pieces of scenery. As a result it is easy to feel that we only really get the illusion that they are interesting or three dimensional through the director’s heavy stylisation; in the end you never feel that you’ve connected to any of the characters or even witnessed much in the way of humanity from them.
It seems to have become a right of passage for East-Asian directors to make the move to Hollywood after success in their native land, with the phenomenal success of two time Academy Award winning director Ang Lee and the financial success of John Woo in the last ten years indicating that it can potentially be the best route to go.
With the release of fellow countryman Kim Ji-woon’s Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand, the eyes of many Asian directors are on them to see if this really does signal a new wave of Asian-American filmmaking. It might be expected with this sort of background that Chan-Wook might have felt pressure to “Americanise” in order to make a more broadly accessible film, however, quite the opposite has occurred.
Instead it feels more art house than anything else he has made in his career so far. Its sensibilities feel more European than anything else, comparisons have been made to Hitchcock, particularly his 1943 effort Shadow Of A Doubt, but the influence of Haneke or even Bergman can be glimpsed at times.
In all, Stoker is a strong first English language effort for a director that has already proven himself capable in the foreign market. Despite a sometimes heavy going style and thick layers of symbolism that can often be simply too unsubtle, there is much to like here. The pacing of the film’s one and a half hour runtime stops it from feeling too drawn out and concise enough to negate any claims of pretension and the performances in all are at least fun enough to keep you involved and engaged with what’s happening. Certainly worth watching if you want a nice creepy mysterious film to watch at the cinema, but those hoping for something more by a talented director, you may leave the cinema feeling somewhat disappointed.