Stoker: Sundance Review
Sundance Film Festival (Premieres) (Fox Searchlight)
With Spike Lee's remake of his "Oldboy" coming this fall, Park Chan-wook makes his long-awaited English-language debut.
PARK CITY -- Park Chan-wook leaves the expected streaks of blood across American screens in Stoker, his English-language debut about a young woman whose coming of age takes place among the corpses of family members and neighbors. Fans who have followed the Korean auteur since 2003's Oldboy will not be disappointed, but a high creep-out factor and top-drawer cast also should attract genre fans who've never heard of him.
Mia Wasikowska plays India, an unusually serious girl whose father dies on her 18th birthday. At the wake she meets an uncle she never knew about, Charlie (Matthew Goode), just returned from unspecified work in Europe. She spends the day dodging his unsettling stare while noting an unsavory familiarity between Charlie and her normally distant mother, Evie (Nicole Kidman).
That unseemliness does not go unnoticed when Charlie decides to stay awhile -- just the three of them (the longtime housekeeper having left abruptly) in a large house isolated from town by acres of woods. A rarely seen aunt (Jacki Weaver) comes for dinner, hoping to tactfully get Charlie out; she isn't heard from again.
Park's restless but exacting camera adds to the tension between these three characters, all of whom are so stiffly guarded with each other -- clearly hiding some things but suspiciously open about others -- that we spend the first half of the film waiting for something to crack, like the hard-boiled eggshell India slowly demolishes on the kitchen table. Sound cues like that eggshell are often exaggerated here, and much is made of parallel physical actions: the opening of a piano lid, say, whose keyboard son will witness a disturbingly erotic duet, with that of a deep freeze that holds more than ice cream.
As a connection forms between India and Charlie -- a sexually skewed mirror, maybe, of the deep bond she had with her father -- Park's unsettling visuals and his handling of the cast make the occasional holes in Wentworth Miller's script practically irrelevant. It's hard to guess whether India is a heroine about to slay a dragon or a beast being born. In the world of Stoker, that seems like a perfect definition of adolescence.