Fans of Korean cinema had very high hopes for Stoker, Park Chan-Wook’s English language debut. Thanks to his reputation on the international film festival circuit, in particular with his cult Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), Park had seeming first choice of talent and assembled a stellar cast in Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman. (Interestingly, none of the three principals is an American.)
True to form for Park, Stoker is both visually stunning and psychologically and physically brutal. The cinematography is painterly and the framing sculptural. Every frame merits notice and every still a work of art. In fact it’s safe to say that Stoker is Park’s most strictly art-produced film. Every color and detail bears evidence of obsessive attention, from the color of characters’ hair to the color of the walls, from the stitching on a collar to the scuffing on a shoe.
In large part this magnification of detail effectively reflects the psychological and somatic experience of India Stoker (Wasikowska), whose hypersensitive observations of the world make ordinary life an ordeal for her. On the day India turns eighteen her father Richard dies in a horrific accident. We see her first at his funeral. Relations between her parents have evidently been strained for some time. Her mother, Evelyn Stoker, seems hardly bereaved, nor does she attempt to comfort her shattered daughter.
Into this household steps Charlie, Richard’s heretofore unknown and long-lost brother. Handsome and charming, sinister and insistent, Charlie quickly insinuates himself into Evelyn’s affections and uneases his niece. Sexual tension abounds in every direction.
As she did in Jane Eyre Wasikowska proves herself dazzlingly talented at portraying the unsaid and undone. With just the widening of eyes or the intake of breath, the curling of her toes or a gaze held too long, she conveys more than most actors do in a range of histrionics. Kidman also shows her acting chops to be as tensile as her body, excelling in the portrayal of a cold and morally complicated character. I always wait for Goode to be more than a pretty face, but unfortunately his smirk got old fast.
The screenplay is the first produced by Wentworth Miller, who is better known as a TV and video game actor, and had been floating around Hollywood enough that it was considered one of the better unfilmed properties in town. I mention all this because the story’s thinness is this movie’s major weaknesses.
With so much talent it’s a puzzle why this movie doesn’t resonate. Critics have faulted its slavish homage to Hitchcock, but in my opinion that would have been fine had it worked. Unfortunately the script is at times so nonsensical and the dialogue at times so lacking in nuance that I found myself laughing when I should have been shocked, and admiring wallpaper when I should have been involved in the story.
Most of all, however, I was disappointed in the lack of heart. One is pulled through Park’s Vengeance Trilogy’s scenes of horrific gore and violence because from the first scenes one cares about the wronged protagonists and are deeply invested in the story’s outcome. In his 2006 I’m a Cyborg but That’s Okay, one is willing to submit to the quirky, disturbing ride because, again, the characters care about one another and we for them.
Most of all, the movie that made Park’s career, 2000’s Joint Security Area, which should be seen by any fan of Korean film, is a deeply moving and unforgettable story of unexpected friendship and love in one of the tensest areas in the world—the DMZ between North and South Korea. So it’s a mystery how a director who so excels at finding the heart of his characters has made a movie so rigid and overcalculated that it leaves audiences cold. To make a play on the song, it seems he left his heart in Seoul, Korea. Let’s hope he finds it again soon.