Sunday, February 17, 2013


"A high camp B-grade thriller more akin to Dark Shadows than Oldboy."

What is that we love about the cinema of Park Chan Wook?  For me, there are so many things:  the carefully staged tableaux; the precise use of colour as symbolism; the willingness to mine the very darkest areas of human psyche - sexual violence, incest; the melodramatic plots of vengeance and redemption; the rich vein of black humour.  When you watch a Park Chan Wook film you know you will be taken somewhere unique and memorable.  Looking back now, it's been years since I've seen his work, but certain scenes are still vivid in my mind.  Lady Vengeance plunging her face into the redemptive white tofu.  Her daughter holding a knife to her throat, threatening her Australian adoptive parents to take her back to Korea.  Mr Vengeance slashing the Achilles tendons of his victim in the water.  The amazing, almost video-game shot, of Oh Dae Su violently dispatching the guards of the prison-hotel. 

All this should explain why I was left cold by STOKER.  It's Park Chan Wook's first American film, and is about as watered down and weak-minded as Wong Kar Wai's incredibly disappointing MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS. I'm not sure whether something was literally lost in translation, or whether the American producers constrained Park Chan Wook's trademark hypnotic excesses.  Maybe it was the script by Wentworth Miller,  better known as the actor who played Michael Scofield in Prison Break - a script that teases us with the potential for deep dark sexual secrets, and taboo attractions but doesn't have the courage to take us deep into depravity.  Which isn't to say that STOKER is a subtle, discreet film. While it dances round the edges of chaos, it contains performances of high camp.  Both Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode have line deliveries that are flat out funny, and not in a good way.  Too often scenes which should be menacing and uncomfortable are just absurd.

But to go back to the beginning, STOKER is not a horror film and certainly contains no vampires or references to Bram Stoker.  Instead, it plays like a high-camp B-grade thriller, akin to DARK SHADOWS.  We open with a kooky family in an isolated country house.  India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a withdrawn emo teenage girl mourning the death of her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney).  Her alcoholic mother (Nicole Kidman) flirts outrageously with her mysterious brother-in-law, but Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) seems transfixed on his niece instead. She resents him, but is also darkly attracted to him, and so chooses to overlook the strange and threatening events that seem to surround him.  Moreover, she is a slippery and unreliable point of view.  Is she fantasising, remembering, distorting the truth?  

All of this seems like a great set up for some truly messed up taboo familial craziness and violence, but sadly it all ends with a whimper rather than a bang.  By the time we got to anything faintly resembling craziness the movie had lost all credibility.  There was no emotional heft and investment similar to the Vengeance films, where I cared deeply what happened to the main characters. The only saving graces were Mia Wasikowska's finely modulated performance, cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon' luscious visuals and Nicholas deToth's editing.  There's a scene where Nicole Kidman's hair morphs into a field of grass.  It's the image that I'll remember in ten year's time, if I remember this poor excuse of a film at all.

STOKER played Sundance 2013 and will be released on March 1st in the UK, Ireland and the USA. It opens in Singapore and Taiwan on March 7th; in Greece, Italy and Romania on March 28th; in the Netherlands on April 11th; in Argentina and Iceland on April 19th; in Denmark on April 25th; in Belgium, France, Portugal, Brazil and Mexico on May 2nd; in Chile and Germany on May 9th; and in Australia and New Zealand on August 29th.

STOKER has a running time of 98 minutes and is rated R in the USA.

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