Stoker is a take on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, a film about estranged “Uncle Charlie” (Matthew Goode) staying with his sister-in-law Evie (Nicole Kidman) and niece India (Mia Wasikowska) following the death of his brother. Told from the sullen India’s perspective, we don’t know what to make of the handsome and cool Charlie at first. Is he trying to get at his brother’s estate somehow? Is he trying to get in Evie’s pants? In India’s? Even when the bodies start to pile up his motivations aren’t clear, and won’t be until the delightfully nutso last act rolls around.
Stoker is director Chan-wook Park’s American debut. If you’re a fan of the “extreme” genre films that South Korea has been offering up to hungry movie nerds over the last decade or so, you’ll recognize that name immediately. He’s the dude who did Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, and Thirst in his home country. All four are violent, disturbing, beautifully shot and hugely fucked up tonally. If you dug those films then I’ll just tell you now that Stoker is in a very similar vein and chances are you’ll dig the shit out of it in kind.
If you’re not savvy to the aforementioned then give the Nerd a moment to prepare you for what you are going to experience should you venture out and let this fucker play out on a big ol’ screen before your eyes in the dark. Like many films I have seen from Korea, Park has an affinity for the melodramatic, both stylistically and storytelling-wise, that even exceeds that of Brian De Palma. A high school bully doesn’t just make lewd comments to young India, he actually rears back to punch her in the face like he and his victim are in first grade sandbox. To visually underline Charlie’s creeping his way into the home and hearts of Evie and India, we watch a spider crawl up Mia Wasikowska’s dress. Why bury a body when putting it in the freezer where anyone in the house could discover it would suffice just as well?
Subtle is not Park’s game and your embracing of overkill is necessary to enjoying this film. Laughing is indeed allowed (it’s so extreme at times that it’s the only reaction available to you), but I could easily see someone watching this film and laughing it off the screen. Go with the goofy, ride with the ridiculous – your experience will benefit greatly from your meeting it half-way. It even took me, a huge fan of Korean cinema, a while to come around to the film. I think it has something to do with the fact that there isn’t the cultural distance I’m used to at play in the film.
Because when you see something tonally nuts going on in a film with subtitles from a country you know little about, you can chalk up the oddness to the fact that, you know, maybe it’s a Eastern thing that’s odd to my Western eyes. To see such crazytown acted out by Western actors who I’ve known for years…different beast, apparently. But then again, I should be somewhat prepared for those moments as a huge fan of De Palma, a guy who could make the most perfect and straight-up genre films ever if he didn’t insist on keeping weird, ironic jokes to he’s making strictly for his own benefit in every movie.
But anyway, with all that shit in mind I thought Stoker was mostly a hoot. It’s breezily paced, vividly shot and creatively edited, with the timeline of scenes slightly out of order (but never in a confusing way) to enhance many plot revelations in the film. The dialogue and acting occasionally leave something to be desired but that could also just be chalked up to the soap operatic style Park is aiming for. If you’re looking for a fun suspense film that is equal parts blunt and beautiful, you could do a helluva lot worse than Stoker.