Hollywood has a history of cherry-picking the world’s greatest filmmaking talents. Though many greats such as Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau and Roman Polanksi have made some of their finest works on American soil, the same can’t always be said of Asian directors. Besides Ang Lee, most Asian cineastes have had trouble adapting their style to the US. This year all eyes are on a few Korean directors making their Hollywood debuts to see if they can buck the trend.
It’s been a longer wait then usual for Park Chan-wook’s new film and the prospect of him working in the States with internationally recognizable faces has meant that expectations for his latest have been sky high. Unlike Kim Jee-woon, who was forced to work on a very controlled project with his Hollywood debut The Last Stand, Park was given much greater freedom for his film.
First off, Stoker is most definitely a Park film. It features all of his trademarks in spades, which is to say the mise-en-scene is electrifying, the atmosphere intense, the violence bloody and original and the production design awash in his beloved patterns.
Aside from its cast and location, the only notable difference here is that Park is not working from his own script. He’s adapted works in the past, such as the original ‘Oldboy’ comic and Zola’s ‘Therese Raquin,’ which loosely formed the basis for Thirst (2009), but this is the first time he was not credited with writing. Instead, the scribe here is Wentworth Miller, primarily known as the star of the show Prison Break. Miller has written a fine gothic coming-of-age chamber piece but his screenwriting debut, particularly as it enters its third act, is far from perfect. It feels a bit truncated as some characters switch gears near the end with little warning, though as 20 minutes were reputedly shorn from the first cut, perhaps some deleted scenes are to blame. Weakest of all are a handful of misjudged high school sequences.
As India Stoker, Mia Wasikowska is formidable. She takes her trademark innocence and teenage angst (though she is actually 23) and twists them for the darkest role of her career to date. Fragile and foreboding, Wasikowska’s nervy performance renders her character’s macabre progression convincing, which is more than can be said of Stoker’s other leads.
Matthew Goode plays the debonair and unctuous uncle Charlie to a tee but when we discover more about his character as the story unfolds, his performance becomes fractured. Pulled out of his dandified comfort zone, Goode seems less at ease with the material, though I can’t lay all the blame on him: Miller’s script handles Charlie’s backstory poorly.
That leaves Nicole Kidman who gives a solid performance for a character that sadly seems unfinished. Insecure, genteel and a bit cold at the outset and slightly unhinged towards the end, Kidman has done the best she could with the material she was given. Again, it’s possible that part of her performance was excised for the sake of a briefer running time.
However, the real star of the film is its mise-en-scene. Known for his innovative and frequently breathtaking aesthetics, Park has one of the most distinctive styles of any director in world cinema. With the help of his longtime cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and others, he has crafted a tight and atmospheric picture. Unlike many films in Hollywood these days, Chung’s camera almost always stays on its tripod but that’s not to say it isn’t dynamic. Long tracking shots abound that bring to mind both Scorsese’s steadicam stalks and Jean Renoir’s complex zigzags. The film’s shots are also brilliantly composed, reflecting the schisms between the characters and the otherworldly nature of their interactions. Park frequently pushes them to the edge of his frame, recalling Bergman and Antonioni films of the 1960s.
Music has always been very important for Park. While he previously favored the more baroque stylings of Antonio Vivaldi, the scores in his films have become less ostentatious but no less effective. There’s no Vivaldi this time around, but with Clint Mansell and Philip Glass on board, the soundtrack of his latest is in very safe hands. Glass in particular provides a haunting piano duet that appears prominently. About halfway through the film it is performed in its entirety and it is remarkable how well it fits and subsequently shapes the mood of the film while the trills, notes and changing tempo reflect the character’s actions on screen.
However, it’s not just the soundtrack’s music that impresses. The sound detail is remarkable, often just as important as the visuals. The design is crisp and absorbing but it also adds to the story. Some highlights include the ominous crepitations of an egg’s shell as India coolly trundles it over a tabletop or her greedy gulps of wine mingling with the shallow breaths she reverberates through the glass’ wide bowl.
Some have decried the film as an exercise in form over substance. While there’s no denying that the visuals are much stronger than the script, such a statement ignores the fact that style is the tool that Park uses to tell a story. Granted there isn’t as much to chew on here as films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Thirst (2009) but then again I could also point to a number of works that are revered foremost for the way they are put together rather than the story they tell, such as Film Noirs.
Unlike many Asian filmmakers who have come and gone before, Park has not lost anything in his transition to Hollywood. It may be undermined by a slightly pedestrian script, but Stoker, buttressed by a sublime mise-en-scene, is a wickedly entertaining gothic tale.
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