Park chan-Wook, the director of Stoker, is not exactly known for his subtlety.
Best-loved for his "Vengeance Trilogy"—a thematically similar, stylishly shot, but ultimately unconnected trio of revenge flicks released between 2002 and 2005—the Korean filmmaker revels in making audiences squirm.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) put us in the shoes of a deaf-mute man who kidnaps a child to pay for his sister’s kidney transplant. After the sister and the child die, much bloodshed ensues, including a brutal scene in which a character’s Achilles tendons are slashed before he drowns because he cannot stand.
Oldboy (2003), which won Cannes’ grand prize the year Quentin Tarantino headed the prestigious festival’s jury, follows the travails of a man who was imprisoned in a hotel by mysterious captors for 15 years for reasons he is not told. After he is released into the world to find his tormentor, much bloodshed ensues, including a brutal scene in which dental work is performed via hammer claw.
Lady Vengeance (2005) is a noirish mystery about a woman carrying out her revenge on those who punished her for a murder she did not commit. In the course of her deadly campaign she discovers that her target is a serial child murderer. And, well, much bloodshed ensues, including a brutal, extended torture sequence in which said child murderer meets justice via a multitude of instruments.
So it should come as no surprise that Stoker, Park’s latest feature and first English-language release, is another stylish, brutal, oft-uncomfortable tale of mystery and revenge. Fans of the director will find much to enjoy, but average audience members could be left scratching their heads at Park’s homages to Hitchcock and unrelenting emphasis on bloodletting.
Here’s the plot. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) loses her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) on her 18th birthday after a terrible car accident. Taking his place is Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a dark and mysterious relative whom India has never met and who seems intent on seducing India’s mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).
Something is off about Charlie, but it is unclear just what. His eyes are a bit too wide, his mannerisms a bit too polished. We are told that Charlie was off, traveling the globe, before his mysterious appearance at Richard’s funeral. However, the reaction of those who knew Charlie before his travails—housekeeper Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) and aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver)—suggest that’s not quite true.
And Mrs. McGarrick and Gwendolyn’s subsequent disappearances do little to assuage our fears.
The plot of Stoker borrows liberally from Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, in which a young girl falls under the sway of another mysterious "Uncle Charlie," and the visuals owe much to Psycho. Stuffed birds and highway troopers with mirrored shades, among other touches, litter the landscape.
Still, given the highly stylized camera movements, fountains of arterial blood, and other various cinematic tricks employed by Park in Stoker, one is tempted to suggest that Park is more influenced by noted Hitchophile Brian De Palma’s conception of Hitchcock than Hitchcock’s conception of Hitchcock. But that is an argument for another time.
Stoker is not a straightforward murder-mystery, however. It is also a coming-of-age tale that is deeply preoccupied with India’s nascent sexuality and the troubles caused by it. So deeply preoccupied, in fact, that things get a bit uncomfortable, when events appear to veer toward the incestuous.
Between the sex and the violence—of which there is plenty, as one might expect in a Park movie—this is a film designed neither for prudes nor for first dates. Those interested in a slightly skewed weekend experience, however, could do worse.