What would you get if all the intangible psychoanalytic menace of a Hitchcock film was re-worked by one of the more bloodthirsty directors in the game? Quite literally, you’d get Stoker. The first foray of acclaimed South Korean director Park Chan-Wook into English-language films, Stoker tells the story of India (Mia Wasikowska), her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and Charlie (Matthew Goode), the mysterious brother of India’s recently deceased father.
Despite both the name and the American Gothic-referencing poster, Stoker isn’t horror, nor is it a vampire film. Rather, it’s a riveting thriller that revolves almost wholly around the damaged ménage à trois. Initially Evelyn is besotted with Charlie and India suspicious, and the tension therein owes a debt to the actors – Kidman is predictably spot-on as the emotionally unbalanced Evelyn, while Wasikowska is unnervingly brilliant as India and Goode sells the archetype of charismatic psychopath seamlessly. As far as the sum of its parts, however, Stoker owes more to its director than anything.
Park, best known to Western audiences for the infamously brutal Oldboy (2002) is a master in marrying narrative and aesthetic, and here he utilises a structure of visual motifs to both foreshadow tension and propel the story. Each scene merges into the next through stylish, surreal match-cuts – Evelyn’s hair dissolves to grass; a bloody egg fades and India’s eye emerges. The story takes place virtually entirely in the gothic Stoker household, descending into a dream-like world of signifiers and clues that could easily collapse into a jumble of pretension, but Park binds it together with just enough of a hint of consciousness that we are pulled in – he knows what’s going on, even if the audience don’t.
Stoker isn’t marked by the unabated savageness of Park’s Korean offerings, but rather restrains itself until tension builds overlong; bursting into sexual violence and bubbling back down again. Park’s film is a masterful exercise in keeping the audience gripped and the characters frayed, or perhaps the other way around.
Stoker is released in Australian cinemas on August 29.
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