Hollywood has never quite known what to do with Park Chan-wook. On the face of it, a director of extremely violent genre films like Sympathy For Mr Vengeance and Oldboy, dig a little deeper however and Park’s output isn’t that easy to qualify. His films are violent, yes, and often in the most grisly sense possible, but they are also astonishing to watch – beautifully styled and composed – and undercut with a rich sense of the absurd. Recent attempts to remake 2003’s Oldboy, arguably his most famous film, have seen off a couple of directors (including Steven Spielberg) and leading men from Christian Bale to Will Smith. Spike Lee’s version, starring Josh Brolin, is due later this year.
In the meantime, Stoker is the Korean filmmaker’s English language debut. Although the grisly violence of Park’s earlier films is dialled down – though fans of “the hammer scene” in Oldboy will enjoy some business here involving a pencil – a general sense of high camp prevails. When India’s father Richard dies in a car accident, she is surprised when Charlie, an uncle she never knew existed, turns up for the funeral. “This is Richard’s brother,” India is told. “He’s come back.” From where – and why – are the film’s great mysteries, playfully teased out by Park and the film’s screenwriter – Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller.
The vibe here is a ripe mix of Gothic fairytale, Almodovar camp and Hitchcock melodrama. Many familiar genre tropes are in evidence – there’s a sprawling house, a mysterious nanny and a distant mother, all filtered through India’s personal and sexual awakening. Matthew Goode’s Charlie is a handsome, charming presence – but he’s impossible to read. He smiles easily, but he has dark, shark-like eyes that give nothing away. And what exactly does he want with his dead brother’s belt? As Evelyn, Nicole Kidman revisits the role of Grace from The Others – another neurotic mother rattling round a rambling old house. Mia Wasikowska, meanwhile, leads the film as India – her dark hair and pale skin bringing to mind one of those creepy ghost girls you get skulking round basements in Japanese horror films. The play between the three leads is terrific – a bit bonkers, quite creepy, often over-the-top. Brilliantly, this is the only house still standing where the freezer sits in the furthest corner of an extremely badly lit basement.