Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lots of menace with no place to go

A talented Korean director shows off his skills but Stoker still falters.
Generally, I have mixed feelings when directors from other countries -- particularly those with distinctive styles and edgy concerns -- travel to the U.S. for English-language productions. I root for the their success, but can't help wondering whether something vital will be lost in translation.

In his first U.S. movie, the often brilliant and always provocative South Korean director Park Chan-Wook (director of movies such as Oldboy and a trilogy of Vengeance films) completes about three-quarters of the journey to a new culture. Park's Stoker can't quite provide the rich payoff his movie promises -- but that's not to dismiss the film's early going, a virtuoso display of style in which Park creates an atmosphere chilled by impending, perhaps inevitable doom.

Working from a screenplay by Wentworth Miller, Park seems to be riffing on Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. Both movies make room for an ambiguous character named Uncle Charlie, Joseph Cotton in Hitchcock's movie and Matthew Goode in Park's version of a story about an uncle who shows up after his brother dies in a car accident.

Uncle Charlie works to establish a bond with his niece (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman he's never met before. In fact, she never knew her father (Dermott Mulroney) even had a brother until Charles turns after Dad's death.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that both mother (a convincing Nicole Kidman) and daughter (perhaps to a lesser degree) are falling under the sway of the preternaturally helpful Uncle Charlie, played with cagy confidence by Goode.

To further complicate matters, Wasikowska's India Stoker is going through the weirdness of her own sexual awakening; the gifted Wasikowska is up to conveying every bit of that weirdness. India displays the normal recalcitrance of an 18-year-old but augmented by something that seems significantly creepier.

There's little question that Park has control over the movie's imagery, its performances and its eerie soundscape, all of which heighten the sense of uneasiness he skillfully creates.
Park tries to maintain ambiguity as he builds toward what should be (but isn't) a whopping and intelligent finale.

Park and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung find plenty of opportunities to show off their mastery, but the screenplay -- which seems rooted in India's fantasy life and dark capacities -- ultimately doesn't reward our patience.

Park's stylistic flourishes (India likes to arrange shoeboxes in horseshoe shapes) seem designed mostly to keep us off balance. They do, but the danger in this kind of approach (violent but less so than some of Park's Korean movies) is that it sets a high bar for the movie's payoff.

Without going much further, I'll just say that Park doesn't vault over the bar he sets for himself, and many will conclude that, in this case, the result is a little too frustrating, a carefully prepared meal that offers too little by way of real nourishment.

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