‘Oldboy’ director Park Chan-Wook makes his English language debut with a typically dark and twisted tale. Fellow Aussie actresses Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska play an American mother and daughter, India and Evie Stoker, who are recovering from the death of their respective husband/father on India’s 18th birthday. His funeral beckons the arrival of Charlie, a world-traveling uncle previously unknown to India, who soon announces that he will be staying with them for a while.
While the script, (which comes from the unlikely source of ‘Prison Break’ star Wentworth Miller) is quite open in acknowledging its Hitchcockian inspiration, a stylist like Park Chan-Wook clearly isn’t interested in just making some kind of homage. He stamps his own touches all over the film, employing lots of symbolism and a variety of audacious editing techniques, including one of the most noteworthy graphic matches in some time, as one characters hair beautifully blends into a field.
Park opening his box of tricks like this runs the risk becoming too much and detracting from the narrative, but in his skilful hands, only serves to enhance it. Admittedly the same script could have been a lesser film without such a talented director behind it, but it never feels like a case of style over substance.
The film takes place in what appears to be the present (technology is sometimes glimpsed) but possesses an unusual, out-of-time quality, with the Stoker house, in which most of the story takes place, and costumes feeling like something out of the past.
Uncle Charlie, played by Matthew Goode (‘Watchmen’) brings an ominous presence to the house. A slender, well-dressed man, he is simultaneously charming and seductive whilst being creepy and menacing. We sense that there is something not quite right with him, but are completely unsure of what it is. As ‘Stoker’ progresses, some of Charlie’s qualities begin to appear in young India too. The two bond in a number of scenes both enticing and alarming (the piano in particular).
The tense, uncomfortable slow build of ‘Stoker’ is expertly handled, and only puts its foot wrong when portraying India’s high school classmates. It escalates to unexpected conclusions and revelations about family past reminiscent of Park’s most famous work. You can see why he was drawn to the material, and from the looks of things, he can carve a disturbing thriller just as well in the US as in his native Korea.