Synopsis: After India’s father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother. She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him
Over the years Asian cinema has set a standard in atmospheric, poetic horror that Hollywood has repeatedly tried and failed to emulate. Mark Kermode wrote brilliantly in his book The Good, The Bad & The Multiplex about how this has everything to do with Asian culture being so steeped in allegorical ghost stories and a belief that the spirits of ancestors are always with you. Ghosts are real and as a result ghost stories are injected with a kind of molasses thickened fear that you can’t replicate in a Hollywood industry that wants to sensationalise every moment rather than let anything build. I would urge anyone with an interest in Asian cinema to seek out that chapter, if not the whole book.
With Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Lady Vengeance and Oldboy, S. Korean director Chan-wook Park has a shown a special talent for creating claustrophobic, stoically enduring psychological horror movies focussed on dark secrets and disturbing family dynamics. It is fitting then that he chose Wentworth Miller’s Stoker for his first stab at and English language movie.
Centred around a privileged WASPish American family dealing with the sudden tragic loss of the patriarchal head of the family (Dermot Mulroney), Stoker focusses on the disturbing relationship that strikes up between three remaining family members. 18 year old India (Mia Wasikowksa), a beautifully morose and brooding musical prodigy afflicted with enhanced hearing. Her emotionally resentful mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). And her mysterious, creepy Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who appears at the funeral of her Father meeting them all for the first time, in quiet possession of a greater plan for them all.
From the first scene to the last it is an achingly beautiful visual and aural experience. Every scene, word, shard of light and decibel is constructed with the precision of a symphony. Park uses his regular DoP Chung-hoon Chung who lights and paints every scene like it is his last, and makes Stoker a sonic experience by playing on India’s hearing affliction to great effect. It is a masterclass in mis-en-scene. Park also uses all manner of editing trickery to create a sense of a timeline that is never quite moving in a straight line.
The issue though is that underneath the technical brilliance and captivating central performances there is an emotional void underneath. In typical middle class fashion emotions are played out through constant passive aggression. In doing so though it leaves all three characters to work within the limited range of their restrictive characters. India is moody. Charlie is uber-creepy. Evelyn is pathetic. It means as it builds to it’s eventual climax you feel little for any of the characters except ambivalence. Given the the context of the characters may well be what Park and Wentworth were striving for, the emptiness you feel as a viewer mirroring the emotional void in India, Charlie and Evelyn. Equally the final revelations felt underwhelming after the enigmatic tension that Park had built so well in the first two thirds.
All of that aside though I could have watched this for hours and hours without any concern for the storyline. Park is a masterful visual artist. I am now going to destroy myself by re-visiting the Vengeance films.
Conclusion: A visually sensational if emotionally hollow experience. Park’s first English language movie is by no means disappointing but it doesn’t quite carry the weight of his previous Korean work for aesthetics and emotion.
Cast: Mia Wasikowksa, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney