By the end of 2013, three of South Korea’s most notable filmmakers will have made the trek to the US of A to make their English-language debut – first up was Kim Jee-woon’s less than stellar Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand, and in a few months Bong Joon-ho will make his stab at Western glory with Snowpiercer. Park Chan-wook, meanwhile seems like the most natural fit of the three for a transition into American cinema, and not only because his Oldboy is likely the most widely seen of the filmmakers’ combined oeuvres. An ostentatious stylist with a penchant for ultraviolence, his movies are nothing if not relentless in their pursuit of insidious thrills. Where Jee-woon’s film felt curiously less grand in scale than his last Korean film, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, Stoker at least has the benefit of being an aesthetic marvel on the level of Oldboy or Thirst. Predictably, it’s the screenplay that lets the enterprise down.
After a hallucinatory credits montage, we meet the Stokers as they bury their patriarch (Dermot Mulroney): 18-year-old India (Mia Wasikowska), constantly restless as she enters adulthood; her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode and his neverending glare), lurking in the periphery. India is already known as a bit of a strange bird, all black hair and standoffish composure, and the appearance of Charlie only makes her the object of further derision from her classmates. Their jeers are based in truth, as it turns out, as Charlie places designs on Evelyn and, seemingly, India as well. Why has Charlie appeared all of a sudden, after years spent “in Europe”?
The downfall of Stoker is that it thinks we want or need the answer to that question. For most of its first two acts, the film is happy to exist as production design and cinematography porn, all elaborate match cuts, fussy framing, and precisely lit beautiful people. Those familiar with Chan-wook’s filmography will enjoy the added dimension of waiting for this at-first chaste film to descend (or ascend) into psychosexual chaos. At first, when that shift occurs, it’s welcome, especially as it’s easily seen as part and parcel of the film’s subjective, surreal style. But before long it becomes clear that Wentworth Miller’s script is actually taking proceedings on a boringly literal level, leading to a third act that drastically undermines what works about the rest of the film. It’s as though Miller watched David Gordon Green’s Undertow – another subjective coming-of-age film with genre leanings and an affinity for nature – but decided that Green’s film should have taken its treasure-hunting plot device more seriously. (It also, clearly, borrows liberally from Shadow of a Doubt, only without the luxury of actual suspense.)