I’ve been excited for this film for a long time. With legendary filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s American debut, Stoker lives up to everything we’ve come to expect from such a renown director. At once a coming of age tale, thriller, and love story, this film weaves together visual beauty and hugely engrossing and dynamic characters to create nothing less than a work of art.
Park Chan-wook is quite possibly one of the most famous and well respected directors, Korean or otherwise, alive today. His iconic Vengeance Trilogy, consisting of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance have helped to establish him as one of the premier filmmakers of the 21st century. With this kind of reputation, the expectation placed upon him is naturally immense. It is my please to announce, then, that not only were my expectations met, but surpassed. Stoker’s masterful direction is a testament to Park’s dedication to his craft. Especially of note is the unique and singularly beautiful art style, which I suppose can best be described as a modern Gothic with a dash of mid-20th century charm. Moreover, visuals are so cohesive and consistent in tone and style that nothing ever seems jarringly out of place (a real danger when opting for stylized design) and provides for an extremely immersive experience.
In his previous films, Park had the tendency to re-cast the same actors in multiple movies, not unlike Tarantino in that respect. With his first foray into American cinema, however, he was forced to experiment with actors he didn’t have any previous experience with. That being said, casting was beautifully done. Leading lady Mia Wasikowska shines as India Stoker, bringing an incredible amount of depth and internal conflict into a character who is struggling to come into her own. Likewise, Matthew Goode of Watchmen fame plays the phenomenally unsettling Charlie Stoker. The interesting thing about Goode’s performance is that none of his on screen actions really betray his true motivation. Rather, we see a glance held a moment too long, a slight shift in body language, and the superficial perfection of his facade which all work together to imply and insinuate that some inner turmoil is brewing.
Stoker is perhaps in a difficult position from the outset by naturally having to be compared to Oldboy, arguably Park’s most well known work to date. Like Oldboy, in which dark imagery and ambiguous character motivation were abundant, Stoker masterfully incorporates those same elements to keep the audience guessing right up until the end. Likewise, Stoker is rife with understated sexualization, which works marvelously with India’s own development as a character. I’m tempted to suggest that Stoker is very Lolita-esque in some parts while being much more reminiscent of Bram Stokers’s Dracula in others. The fact remains that the film is filled with some beautifully executed tension due to the constant and inescapable presence of thinly veiled evil.
I would usually reserve this section of the review for various gripes that I may have, but truth be told, I don’t have many to indulge in. It’s been suggested by some friends of mine that the depiction of India’s high school was blatantly unrealistic and filled with the archetypical high school cast of characters. To me, such a depiction reminded me a lot of Brick (2005) and how the day to day school life was deliberately intended to be brutal and unforgiving and filled with as many unsavory characters as possible. Also like Brick, the dearth of adults in the film, outside of India’s immediate family, likely serves to emphasize how alone India actually is as she navigates her own feelings and desires.
I can say unequivocally that Park Chan-wook’s debut in the American film industry was a resounding success. Stoker is a massive achievement with both beautifully executed visuals and narrative. It is a smart, sexy, intriguing film and serves as yet another testament to Park’s skill as a director. Put Stoker high on your ‘must-see’ list for 2013.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5