PARK Chan-Wook’s first English-language film is a thoroughly strange creation that convincingly blends fairytales and horror, writes Alistair Harkness.
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver
* * * *
SOUTH Korea’s most prodigiously talented filmmaker, Park Chan-wook, makes an auspicious Hollywood debut with Stoker, a movie that delights in twisting expectations by playing around with old horror tropes only to deliver something altogether stranger and less easily defined. That may wrong-foot those who only associate Park with the extremities of his revered “Vengeance” trilogy (although it shouldn’t: Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance were pretty subversive, multilayered films in their own right), but perhaps not those who caught his previous film Thirst, a deliciously dark and depraved vampire movie based on Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin.
In fact, despite the title having nothing to do with Dracula author Bram Stoker, there remains something of a playful vampire-like undercurrent to the early stages of this otherwise macabre Gothic fairytale about a grieving family whose dysfunction is exacerbated by the arrival of a mysterious relative. The latter is Charlie Stoker, younger brother to the recently deceased Richard (Dermot Mulroney) and hitherto unknown uncle to Richard’s oddball, just-turned-18 daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska).
Played by Matthew Goode, Charlie is first spied by India at her father’s funeral, standing off in the distance, silhouetted against the sun, surveying proceedings from atop a crypt – like some dark prince contemplating the havoc he’s about to wreak. It’s a bizarre introduction, but it sets the mood perfectly for what follows as Charlie moves in with India and her distant, emotionally unstable mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), bringing with him a weird sexual energy that Evelyn finds immediately intoxicating, but which also, rather more disturbingly, begins to gradually entice India out of her shell.
Just what is going on, though, is a mystery that Park, working from an intriguing script by Wentworth Miller (best known as the star of TV’s Prison Break), keeps close to his chest. There’s a lot of subtext-heavy talk about Charlie’s past – particularly over dinners during which red wine is consumed with sensual abandon. The arrival of another relative, played by Jacki Weaver, drops further hints that Charlie might be dangerous. And suggestions are repeatedly made that there may also be something nasty lurking in the basement freezer.
And yet, as much as Park eggs on these horror elements, he simultaneously loads the film with fairytale imagery, be it the Cinderella-esque shoes India receives every year on her birthday, the spiders that she allows to crawl up her legs, or the way India is frequently framed sitting in oversized chairs – something that brings to mind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (a nice meta-touch given that Wasikowska got her big break as the lead in Tim Burton’s version of the story). It’s as if Park is taking us through the looking glass in order to give us an entertainingly out-there coming-of-age story.
Actually, that’s precisely what he’s doing. Charlie’s arrival is really the catalyst for some pretty loopy behaviour on India’s part. An outcast at school, and a frequent victim of bullying, she gradually starts to display a newfound sexual confidence, not to mention a surprisingly violent ability to defend herself.
Wasikowska is something of a revelation here. So often cast as the wistful wallflower, she rises to the challenge posed by the film’s lunatic premise – playing India not as shy girl begging to be corrupted, but as a somewhat subdued creature suddenly reconnecting with her atavistic side after being unleashed back into the wild. It’s the anti-Terrence Malick, and Park even book-ends the film with gorgeous scenes of a bloodied Wasikowska pirouetting through fields of grass, as if in mockery of Malick’s idealised equation of nature with tranquillity.
Kidman, too, seems energized by the chance to act in something a little more deranged. She keeps Evelyn ambiguous, never quite letting on whether her apparent disdain for her daughter is brought on by jealousy or fear. But it’s Goode who has the trickiest task. Charged with making Charlie seem like a believable character while at the same time maintaining an air of otherworldly mystery, he plays him as a man full of malevolent, seductive charm, but remains just off-kilter enough to sell us on the film’s feverish finale.
It’s an impressive feat, not least because Hollywood has a habit of chewing up talented, well-established filmmakers from other countries and blunting their edge with inappropriate projects and stringent commercial demands.
Stoker, though, is very much a Park Chan-wook film first and a Hollywood star vehicle second. Sure, it’s strange, beautiful, stylish and at times wilfully confounding, but it’s also like nothing else out there at the moment – and that singularity, together with the fact that Park hasn’t simply done the easy thing and regurgitated his most celebrated work for an English language audience, makes it all the more fascinating.