Inviting and ironic: Park Chan Wook's 'Stoker'
MANILA, Philippines - "Stoker" comes as a relatively quiet release. In the midst of of the Oscars aftermath and before the big summer flicks it creeps upon us like a, well — more about creeps creeping up from behind later in the review.
The film’s calm and quiet are contrasted by its chilling undertones. It’s being sold as a horror flick, but it’s more like a psychological meditation. This might be off-putting to people looking for a straight up scare-fest, but rest assured "Stoker" is loads better than your usual slasher flick.
That being said, I will admit that I have my own quibbles with the film, especially in its last act. Also, I am sure that the film’s languid pace and willingness to spend substantial amounts of time focusing on beautiful images is not for all viewers. It should be indicative that the screening that I went to almost did not push through because so few people were there.
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"Stoker" is more art film than popular film, despite its stars and Hollywood backing. It also brings together screenwriter Wentworth Miller and director Chan-Wook Park. Most people will know Miller as Scofield from the TV series "Prison Break," and Park from "Oldboy." The film’s script and sensibility are dark, and Park executes them well, showing too his own directorial flourishes and stylistics.
If anything, the film’s mastery lies in its ability to create atmosphere. At the opening, when we are exposed to the idea that lead Mia Wasikowska’s India Stoker has a preternatural sense of hearing, we get an almost physically disparaging feel of it. She cracks and peels shells off of hard-boiled eggs and we get that sound of crunching paired with a clear sense of disquiet and restlessness.
That scene sets the mood for the film, and the film maintains this detached and yet overly involved feel throughout.
India is an odd girl who has a complicated, almost adversarial relationship with her mother Evelyn, played by Nicole Kidman. This is one of my quibbles with the film. While the two actresses convey the problematic relationship well, and the film shows us how awkward and how sometimes chilly their interactions are, we never really get to the roots of it. There are some hints and towards the end some explanations, but I felt that there had to be more behind the animosity.
We meet India and the rest of the cast on India’s 18th birthday. It’s on this day that her father dies and her uncle Charlie, whom she did not know existed until the wake, shows up. An almost too contrived situation, right? Well, yeah, it is. And unfortunately the set up feels a little but too leading.
Get to know director Park Chan-Wook through this video:
Luckily, the film balances all of this with the right amount of suspense. By keeping Uncle Charlie enigmatic and appropriately creepy, we get a sense of menace and malice. More interestingly, it also shows how Charlie, played with just the right amount of detachment by Matthew Goode, manages to draw both Evelyn and India in. He is charming and both women seem attracted to him.
Which gives me pause. While I can get Evelyn’s possible attraction and then India’s apparent disgust at the idea, I had to wonder about the sexual tension that was created between uncle and niece. Granted, I guess, stuff like that happens. But it made me wonder about how the mother might have sensed and yet not intervened.
Then again, there’s this weird incestuous stuff in Park’s "Oldboy" too, and it might just be my old Catholic schoolboy training doing a knee jerk reaction to the content.
So we’ve got the off-kilter India being both attracted to and repulsed by Uncle Charlie and what he seems to offer and represent. We are kept in the dark for most of the film, only given hints and impressions and feelings, but rarely anything concrete. And even when something concrete is revealed, we still sit back ambivalent to how we are really supposed to respond to it.
This exploration in the middle part of the film, coupled with the tangible sense of suspense, are what make the film worth watching. Like I said, it’s atmosphere. It sets up this setting where we can barely breathe, even though we are in a spacious house, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and there are so few players. We still get the sense that something is just lurking, but we can never pin it down.
Watch the trailer here:
The problems of the film occur once it starts making its revelations. The 3rd act reveals are sadly predictable. With all the great work done in creating mood, tension, and atmosphere, I was expecting a much more shocking and disturbing series of revelations. As it stands, it was just okay.
Still, "Stoker" is a solid couple of hours of filmmaking. The cinematography was beautiful and Park shows that he’s ready to teach Hollywood a few things about making a suspense film. This isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea with its violence (though much less violence than one would expect from Park, it’s still pretty disturbing) and its pacing.
If you want a challenging and suspenseful couple of hours that aren’t your run of the mill slasher, this is a good choice. - Rappler.com
('Stoker' is currently screening in Philippine cinemas.)
Carljoe Javier doesn't know why people think he's a snarky film critic who spends his time dashing the hopes of filmgoers. He thinks he's not all that bad, really. He teaches at the State U, writes books, and studies film, comics, and video games... Then again, those people could be right.