For movie geeks who aren’t intimidated by subtitles, the recent genre cinema of South Korea has become something of an obsession. The country is simply stacked with filmmakers like Chan-wook Park, Joon-ho Bong, and Jee-Woon Kim who create hyper-stylized thrillers packed with violence, dark humor, and perverse human insight like Old Boy, The Host, and I Saw the Devil. Well, that secret source of genre bliss is about to be a secret no longer.
I’m not sure who decided this would be the case, but 2013 is the official year of the Korean filmmaking invasion in Hollywood. A short month ago Kim ushered in the best Arnold Schwarzenegger movie in decades, Bong is currently finishing up a post-apocalyptic thriller starring Chris Evans, and this week what very well could be the best film of the three debuts in Chan-wook Park’s Stoker.
Park always managed to combine cynical humor with illicit thrills in a way that would surely tickle the late great Alfred Hitchcock and in his English language debut the filmmaker delivered a loving tribute and homage to the master of suspense. If Hitchcock was still alive he very well could have made Stoker, but with corpse reanimation still just a beautiful dream, Park fills the portly silhouette nicely. That’s high praise indeed and thankfully both the man and the film deserve it.
Based on a script by of all people Prison Break star Wentworth Miller (with a little pervy assistance from Secretary’s Erin Cressida Wilson), Stoker dives head first into Hitchcock country and never comes up for air. Mia Wasikowska stars as a deeply odd and disturbed teenager who comes off somewhere between and old soul and a childish innocent. Living in one of those massive gothic mansions practically designed to house family secrets, the girl’s father dies early on and her suspicious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) walks into the picture straight of Hitch’s Shadow Of A Doubt to bring a little chaos to the young girl’s life. Long whispered about, but never seen before, the uncle immediately ingratiates himself into the family home with chilly charisma. Wasikowska’s full-time alcoholic mother (Nichole Kidman in a role that actually suits her new plastic face) immediately and creepily sets her eyes and thighs on the uncle, but in a world of creeps his intentions are more focused on the soon-to-be-18 Wasikowska. Revealing more than that would be unfair has the film is designed to twist and manipulate the audience’s sympathies and expectations from there. However, let’s just say that the incestuous infatuation at the core leads to violence over sex.
Orchestrating it all from the first frame is Chan-wook Park, whose floating cameras seem to fetishize every close up and find suspicion in every shadow. Park imported his resident cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung along with him and they ably bring the sumptuous style of their Korean efforts to America. Every meticulously constructed shot feels like it could be pulled from the movie for a poster still, while certain images like a gorgeous editing transition that turns freshly combed hair into a swaying grass or an artful close up of a bloody pencil will instantly garner pictorial appreciation and obsessive film school deep reading. Park loads his images with visual metaphors for the egghead set without ever losing sight of careful storytelling or visceral thrills.
Stoker is nowhere near as graphic as Park previous thrillers, but the emotional violence and gleeful deconstruction of family values that he explores is no less disturbing. It’s a more psychological thriller than we’re used to from the director, one dependent on performances and he gets some doosies from the cast. Wasikowska’s cold and distant teen feels primed to become a dark princess icon for the type of girls who once plastered posters of Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice all over their walls. The young actress has never been handed a lead so demanding or revealing, and gamely steps up to deliver everything asked of her. Kidman is a delightfully evil mother who eats up lines like “I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart” with relish and mustard, yet the film’s real MVP is Matthew Goode. His twisted Uncle Charlie is the type of role that in lesser hands could have turned into a series of quirks and distracting mannerisms, but he underplays the villainous role admirably and adds just enough morbid wit to make the character more than a symbol of evil.
This is a review of vagaries and hyperbole simply because I’m too enamored by what the filmmakers accomplished to let any secrets slip out amongst my gushing. A few warnings are in order though. Though marketed as a horror film, it should not be consumed as a fright flick. This is very much an adult thriller that works it’s magic more with unease, suspense, and dread than shocks. Also, it should be noted that the material will seem paper thin unless you are as willing to engage with cinematic artistry and geekery as Park.
Stoker is dripping with allusions and metaphors designed to be picked apart by the film faithful and might not appeal as much to the masses as Park’s more visceral Korean productions. Still, the fact that Park managed to create a Hollywood effort so thoroughly entertaining and filled with his directorial trademarks is a rare achievement. If it’s successful, Park might well become one of those rare foreign filmmakers like Paul Verhoeven who are able to simultaneously work within and subvert the system. If not, he can always just slide back into the Korean film industry with glossy production values and artistic freedom. Either way the movie obsessives of the world win. Stoker is here and it already feels like a potential cult classic.