Celebrated for giving us genre classics such as Oldboy, Lady Vengeance and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Korean director Park Chan-wook is no newbie to unconventional cinema. But, whilst the remake of Oldboy looms around the corner, we're welcomed with the director's first English-spoken film, Stoker.
When the news of India's father's fatal car crash hits on her 18th birthday, all that looms is an inevitable funeral and a few uncomfortable interactions with mostly insincere family friends. She's self-collected and for the most damaged by the news. All who remains is her self-obsessed, utterly undependable mother (Nicole Kidman) who, with the sudden arrival of the distant and bleakly chilling Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), decides to focus her grief and attention on him. It's not until secrets are unveiled that raise awareness for India about Uncle Charlie's true intentions.
Mia Wasikowska, that innocent girl from the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Jane Eyre, redefines herself in Park's ultimately innocence-obliterating Stoker. This is truly an adult role, one that Wasikowska grasps by the balls. A new light certainly shines on the young actress, maybe not from the opening scene of which she relentlessly scours the grounds of her family's enormous house for a hidden birthday present, but eventually, and surely, tainted -- almost poisoned -- by the suffocating grip of her mysterious, watchful Uncle. Her broken innocence and gradual descent into adulthood takes her to a well-defined dark corner, of which her beloved Uncle Charlie is more than welcoming to accompany her to.
Goode's undoubtable good looks aren't as much of a distraction as i had initially expected. Well, sure they're dazzling but it shrouds the character in so much curiosity that it merely plants you in the same boat as India. Though behind closed doors his secrets mount to something a lot more sinister, his unusual eroticism creates a profound depth to Stoker that stretches over a span of three characters -- him, Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman herself. Her determination to lean everything on this newly-uncovered manly figure that's fortunately a better, younger looking version of her late husband swerves her into a place India can't figure out, and vice versa.
Two very different reactions to this defined figure send the characters into completely opposite directions -- something that's due for Kidman's resumé. Along with her unconventional role in this year's sleeper hit The Paperboy, she's beginning to relinquish her reservedness and tend to roles a little more intriguing and fortunately ones that push boundaries. The focus isn't exactly on her, but she's a delightful addition who provides an intensity through the jealousness of her daughter's newly-found relationship.
A malevolence is fused with traditional family dynamics in a story that isn't particularly original, though thanks to the renowned eye of Park it feels every bit as original as all his other pieces of work. Every scene feels necessary; every scene feels dependant on the next; every moment of intense eroticism or general unease feels precise and absolutely vital to the final product. This is Park's expertise in cinematic relevance, and as much as everyone involved do their jobs with unquestionable brilliance, this is his game.
As innocence is shattered, the hook is flesh deep. These characters are cold, vague and often expressionless, but we want to know more. India is understood as much as we understand Charlie isn't the idyllic idea of a precious Uncle. These characters have depth and what's so infuriating is that it ends just as we're truly begging for more.
Verdict: Park's English debut feels underwhelming compared to his prior work but as a stand alone piece it's astounding. Directed with the greatest precision, Stoker is the downfall of one girl's innocence and the figure which smashes it to smithereens. Career-defining performances from Wasikowska plants her as a true talent worth watching, where known actors such as Goode and Kidman are on par with her brilliance. It's an enticing and superior tale with an underlying evil that grips and dazzles.