Stoker is Korean director Chan-wook Park's English language feature debut, and as with a lot of transitional works there are few aspects that seem to get lost in translation. Given the tremendous accomplishments of his last feature, 2009's Thirst, this comes as no surprise. Thirst is a difficult one to top, marking a plateau in Park's career that was built to through his popular "Vengeance Trilogy" (Sympathy For Mister Vengeance, 2002; Oldboy, 2003; Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, 2005). Oldboy seems to have emerged as the most enduring of Park's films with fans (among them Spike Lee, currently producing a remake), but for me Thirst most completely displays the auteur's capacity for reinvigorating genre with a perverse sense of humor and character. The title of Stoker alone lets us know that Park hasn't shaken his predilection for vampire fiction, though the tropes of the genre only occasionally waft through the scenes, encountering cross breezes of the Gothic, as well as the psycho-sexual tendencies of Hitchcock.So what type of movie is Stoker? And, does Park himself even know (or care)? The film has been somewhat tossed aside critically as a case of "style over substance," but when the style is this engaging it's difficult to be dismissive. Of course, this isn't always the case with directors who like to indulge their tendency toward stylistic excess (though worlds apart genre-wise, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums comes to mind), but Park's endless cinematic flourishes seem to compliment a script that at times becomes leaden in its implications. In one scene the budding flower of evil at the center of the film, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowsa), is questioned by her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) about what type of ice-cream she prefers. Uncle Charlie has come to "visit" after the death of India's father Richard (Dermot Mulroney), and seems to hold a thousand strange secrets behind his slick countenance. As the camera negotiates the emerging sexual tension between the three Stokers at the heart of the film (the third being Nicole Kidman's recently widowed "Evelyn"), India's announcement of her distaste for both chocolate and vanilla--she likes "the swirl kind"--is endowed with an almost laughable weight. The following dinner scene continues in the same vein, with each plodding reference to the food, the wine, and the music striking the same persistent note. The pace and tone this scene establishes might threaten to sink a film of this type were it layed at the hands of lesser talent, but Park and his central trio of exceptional actors allow the film to exist both on a level of dramatic engagment and a sort of beautiful camp. Ultimately, Stoker is a coming-of-age tale, albeit of a young pyschopath. As such, we pretty quickly understand that we are fairly confined to India's psychological space, which elevates the film beyond the tedious Pop references of so much recent Horror/Thriller fair and allows us to enjoy the playful way in which Stoker (as in Bram), Cinderella, and a bit of Blue Velvet/Twin Peaks-era David Lynch are all lovingly swirled in together.
In fact, the few moments that do evoke Lynch may hold one interesting key to what Stoker gets right, but also the way in which it ultimately fails to reach similar heights. Where Lynch's films are always, inevitably about immersion in the world of the story, Stoker seems too submissive to a particular strain of Thriller mechanics, and our understanding of it too occupied by questions of both symbolism and plot. In this sense, Stoker also evoked for me Darren Aaronofsky's Black Swan (2010), which similarly applies horror and suspense tropes as a way of symbolically evoking repressed female bodies and sexuality. Although I appreciated much of Black Swan, I much prefer Park's take, similarly obvious in its visual metaphors, but more successful in the end and less ponderously tragic. The way in which India comes into her own is more "gleeful corruption" than "tragic plunge." Like Lee Daniels' recent piece of artful trash The Paperboy (also featuring Kidman in another excellent performance) there is a sense that in an alternate universe these characters might have existed in a John Waters movie, where sexual liberation combined with violent rampage are unabashedly designed to make the viewer a bit giddy.
It's difficult to tell how much of what Stoker gets right is intentional or not, evidently having experienced some major alterations during production that included mass re-casting and the replacing of a Phillip Glass score. Though one might wonder why you would ever replace a Phillip Glass score, the final decisions made in regards to the film's soundtrack (including one remaining and astonishing Glass composition titled "Duet") are undeniably effective. In a scene where Charlie's seduction of Evelyn is spied by India, the Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood duet "Summer Wine" is haunting and perfect as we witness through the drapes India fleeing the vision of betrayal. As with all of the music, these choices are far from mere stylistic flourishes, but rather neccessary components of the character and psychology of the film, perhaps most notably in the finale which features the perversly triumpant groove of Emily Well's "Becomes the Color." The final shots of India are among the most rich and indelible frames in a film that is full of gorgeously rendered flights of imagination.