Say what you will about Park Chan-wook and his work, but the man is clearly having a good time. The Korean New Wave mainstay shares the same sort of perverse delight in filmmaking as Tarantino: the elevation of gruesome, violent and generally trashy material through impeccable craft seems to illicit a fiendish rise out of both men. But for all of his constant insistence that his films are nothing more than exploitative, B-movie fun, Tarantino’s films (and his recent historian-trolling binge in particular) always seemed to have a serious sense of purpose behind them. QT is nothing if not extremely conscious of the rules his films are breaking, and deliberate provocation is half the point.
Park’s cinematic needling, on the other hand, has often been more enigmatic, which is to say pointless. Films like “Oldboy” and “Thirst” were certainly impressive visual baubles: that hallway fight in “Oldboy” alone is enough to prove the director’s extraordinary grasp on the powers of framing. But his convoluted plots were far too much like a serpent devouring its own tail, savagely chewing and chewing on their own gristle until they simply blipped out of existence, leaving nothing for the audience to ponder on.
With “Stoker,” his English-language debut, Park isn’t exactly trying anything different (I would call it the ultimate triumph of style over substance, but Tarsem yet lives to defend that title). But what little regard he had for rationalism before has been thrown out of the window here in favor of a total embrace of his aesthetic. And insane as that may sound, it was possibly the most brilliant move the director could make. Rather than build an intentionally “shocking” narrative from scratch, “Stoker” (written by former “Prison Break” star Wentworth Miller) takes a host of cinematic and literary tropes and reflects them through Park’s unique visual prism. The result is a chillingly atmospheric gothic tale told with such hyperactive glee you can’t help but smile even as you cringe.
The set-up, as many a critic has pointed out, is pure Hitchcock: following the peculiar death of her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney in flashback) on her 18th birthday, oddball Wednesday Addams lookalike India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) receive a surprise visit from Richard’s brother, the suave, charming Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). India is wary of the newcomer, and for good reason – before the day of the funeral, she wasn’t even aware that Charlie existed. Evelyn, on the other hand, quickly falls under her brother-in-law’s spell, and her semi-desperate flirting stirs up quite a bit of town gossip.
Since we’re already waist-deep into a “Shadow of a Doubt” homage, Charlie is of course not quite the sophisticated, worldly gentleman that he appears to be. A housekeeper goes missing; another mysterious family member (Jacki Weaver) turns up casting furtive glances Charlie’s way. You get three guesses where this is going, and the first two don’t count. Matthew Goode plays the Joseph Cotten role with more obvious menace, his eyes constantly following India with a hungry gaze; he might gobble up the whole film if the entire rest of the cast, especially Kidman, weren’t operating at the same mad pitch.
What surprises the narrative has in store, along with its last vestiges of subtlety, thus lie with India and Wasikowska’s fine performance. The girl’s psycho-sexual awakening through violence is likewise a familiar plot structure from Hitchcock, but the tone is ultimately more akin to that director’s later acolytes. For all his dark id-exploration, the Master of Suspense was generally an optimist: the murderer would be caught, the heroine saved, the psychopathy repressed. Disciples like David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma and David Lynch have had no trouble following man’s darker impulses to a bleaker conclusion, and Park likewise has an aversion to happy endings and tidy divisions. Is Charlie really the source of all India’s ills, or is his presence merely a catalyst? Wasikowska is simultaneously delicate and sharp, cautious and vigorous, a living embodiment of sitting on pins and needles.
But perhaps already I’m giving too much attention to issues that are clearly secondary to Park, like “plot” and “themes.” “Stoker” reminded me far more of Lynch’s sublime camp than Hitchcock’s clinical thrills – there’s an absurdity to the whole enterprise, a devil-may-care attitude that dares you to take any second of the film seriously. In many ways “Stoker” is simply an excuse to cram as many striking images into an hour and half as possible. The camera swoops and Kidman sneers in ways that any other film would use as a sign of Significance, but these attention-grabbing, self-conscious shots are so relentless that at some point you realize that Park is just grinding the wheels for the hell of it. “Stoker” plays (again in Lynch-like fashion) with the audience’s expectations of cinematic symbolism; sometimes it’s fun just to go along with the ride.
For all that, “Stoker” can’t quite reach the rarefied air of an “Inland Empire” or “Mulholland Drive;” Park still has a lingering impulse to “explain” things even when his film has already rushed far past the point where that would be satisfying. It’s the right move for Park to indulge his surrealistic streak, but he can still go further. Why do so many filmmakers need to be reminded that the psychologist’s monologue is the worst part of “Psycho?”
Still, the American Gothic genre has long been ignored in mainstream cinema, and it’s fascinating to see elements of Puritan guilt and the conflict between rationalism and irrationalism blend so well with a foreign director’s bag of tricks. Who would guess that a maker of Korean thrillers could produce such a brilliantly eccentric blend of Hitchcock, Hawthorne, Lynch and Tennessee Williams? Whether you love its immoderate style or not, “Stoker” is guaranteed to be unlike anything else you watch this year.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars